Firearms Control - Home Affairs Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 238-269)


16 NOVEMBER 2010

  Q238  Chair: Thank you very much indeed, gentlemen, for coming to give evidence to the Committee. Can I start with a question to each of you? There is obviously concern, after the announcement of the comprehensive spending review, about the amount of resources that can be directed towards gun licensing and gun control. Do you have any concerns about that? Do you think it will reduce the police's ability to ensure that licensing is properly undertaken?

  Adrian Whiting: Sir, I would say that I have a number of concerns. I have already had to recommend to chief officers that, in particular, things such as home visits, which are part of our national policy on both grant and renewal, are conducted in person. A number of forces conduct them by telephone and, in some cases, postally. It gives me some concern that, in the forthcoming climate in which policing will operate, arrangements such as that will be placed under increasing pressure.

  Therefore, any opportunities that can be taken to reinforce—that is one example, of course—the necessity around some of the administrative processes linked to public safety in this regard are well worth taking. I don't foresee a wholesale collapse, for example, in relation to this, but I do see that there is a risk of erosion around some of the practices that we currently recommend.

  Q239  Chair: Because of some of these changes that you are going to have to make, do you feel that somebody might slip through the net, who otherwise would have been discovered as undesirable?

  Adrian Whiting: Sir, I think there is a clear risk, but trying to quantify that is incredibly difficult. That is why I maintain the policy position nationally that I do. Although it is difficult to quantify that risk, that is clearly my motivation.

  Q240  Chair: Should there be a national licensing authority to deal with these issues? One suggestion is that the various application/licensing systems ought to be rolled into one, so that it is very clear to whom you have to apply.

  Adrian Whiting: I don't think that any intending certificate holders, applicants or those who hold certificates approaching renewal or are looking for variation are in any doubt as to where the application is to be addressed. As for a national body, I am not generally speaking in favour of that. I don't think the evidence at the moment points to there being such a significant opportunity for improvement, if that were taken from the police service and placed into a separate organisation. I bear in mind the fact that that separate organisation would presumably have to have access to all the information that a police service and the chief constable have.

  Q241  Chair: But it could be part of the new national crime agency, couldn't it?

  Adrian Whiting: Conceivably, but the organisation that undertakes it will have to have a comprehensive national network capable of undertaking house-to-house, almost, inquiries. I don't think the national agency would be in a position to want to undertake that. It would be potentially at some odds with the remit that I understand that agency is likely to take on board.

  Chair: Mr Mackey, I will turn to you now. Mr Burley is going to probe you on a number of specific questions, but on behalf of the Committee we would like to recognise the work of the Cumbria police after the incident occurred. I was at the police awards last Thursday when you and your men and women were duly recognised for the work they did.

  Craig Mackey: Thank you.

  Q242  Mr Burley: Mr Whiting concluded that the decisions taken by Cumbria constabulary to grant Derrick Bird a shotgun firearms certificate were reasonable, and that all appropriate checks took place. Obviously, we have heard evidence before the Committee that that individual had convictions for drink-driving; that he had come to the attention of the police over an argument with his girlfriend; and that he had been arrested with regard to payment with menaces, two counts of theft and handling of stolen goods.

  It seems that Derrick Bird was known to you, and I guess the Committee is wondering whether you are satisfied that, at every appropriate opportunity, checks were made on him as to whether he was still fit to hold that shotgun licence.

  Craig Mackey: I'm as reassured as I can be. I don't think you are ever going to be happy or satisfied about the events of 2 June. All I could ask for, and all I wanted, was reassurance that the proper processes had been followed at that time. It is important to put in context the later unsubstantiated matters.

  Many members of the community have things reported about them that never end up before a court. That is not uncommon in work like taxi work. I suspect that if you looked at the number of times he was also reported as a victim, where people made off from his taxi—there would be incidents like that. What it does is use it as part of building a picture to make an informed decision about the individual, based on the information you have at the time. That is all you can do.

  I wanted the reassurance that the processes and procedures, as they existed, and the legislation had been followed. The important thing—as it said in the report, and it is my own conclusion, having looked at it—is that a licensing system can only ever reduce risk. If we wanted to eliminate the risk of something like 2 June, there would have to be a completely and fundamentally different relationship with the public availability of firearms. It is not a matter of simple changes to the licensing system.

  Q243  Mr Burley: The corollary of that answer is whether, if all the proper processes took place and we still had the incident, we need more robust processes in place to reduce the risk even further, accepting that you could never eliminate it altogether. We have heard suggestions that perhaps GPs should be contacted on a more regular basis. Should police licensing officers have more discretion to make these decisions to speak to people? Should they have to come into your station once a year? Are there things we can do?

  Craig Mackey: I would support all the suggestions in the part 2 report in terms of that. I know some of the challenges it will present.

  Q244  Chair: Even if those suggestions were followed, do you think this still would have happened? Is that what you are saying?

  Craig Mackey: What I am saying is that, if you want to eliminate the risk completely, it is a fundamentally different relationship around the availability of firearms in a community.

  Q245  Chair: But if you accept what Mr Burley says—that all these processes should change—are you saying at the end of the day that this would still have happened?

  Craig Mackey: What I'm saying is that there is no guarantee it won't happen.

  Q246  Mr Burley: In terms of minimising, are there more processes that we can put in place?

  Craig Mackey: Absolutely. I think that the issue about minimising the risk is absolutely right. The work with health and the issue about prohibited persons and suspended sentences are an opportunity to clear up a whole range of these things that minimise the risk of a future event.

  Q247  Alun Michael: Mr Mackey just referred to prohibited persons. May I ask—this is primarily for Mr Whiting—how you respond to the proposals of the Independent Police Complaints Commission in respect of prohibited persons?

  Adrian Whiting: Yes, sir. We are largely at one, but the Independent Police Complaints Commission and ACPO certainly support my proposals in relation to wholly suspended sentences. Similarly, I take note of and am in agreement with their proposals in relation to bindovers and weighing up the accumulative effect of convictions that might otherwise seem unrelated. I didn't include that in my report, because the issue, as they recommended it, was to see a change in the Home Office guidance, which I think is relatively straightforward if people are so minded.

  What I have recommended in relation to wholly suspended sentences would require, I believe, some greater clarification than that, because it is based on the interpretation of the law as the 1968 Act is worded and in a particular judgment in the Fordham case. I highlighted mine because it requires a greater administrative step to make that change, but we are certainly in agreement.

  Q248  Alun Michael: There's always an approach that asks, "Where are the gaps in the law and where are the gaps in the guidance?" Do you agree with a comment made to us in a recent evidence session that what we need is more of a public health approach that considers the whole environment in which these events take place?

  Adrian Whiting: Yes, that's why I have made recommendations on things such as a more formal framework around those who are consulted in the process of application and renewal, to include family residents who are perhaps resident at the same address. I think there are opportunities in terms of taking forward a more complete, holistic approach to the licensing question that moves us on from some potentially process-driven arrangements that look down a list and ask, "Does this or that apply or not?"

  Q249  Alun Michael: Could I ask Mr Fidgeon in particular whether the guidance for police officers in this area, with the clarification that you are seeking to make, is clear enough in terms of what it says? Is the legislation—in some cases, there are different rules for different weapons—a problem in relation to the guidance that police officers have to follow?

  Mick Fidgeon: I would say that the guidance is almost fit for purpose. It is undergoing a review at the moment, and part and parcel of the IPCC's recommendations are going forward towards the guidance. The main thing for us is that guidance is not always upheld by the courts, which is one of the reasons why part of the submission is actually to give it some legal status as an approved code of practice, such as health and safety legislation.

  Q250  Steve McCabe: I want to ask not specifically about the guidance for the IPCC, but whether Mr Fidgeon is familiar with the evidence that Mr Eveleigh, who is now with the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, gave the Committee. He is a former firearms licensing officer.

  Mick Fidgeon: Yes, sir, I have read Mr Eveleigh's submission.

  Q251  Steve McCabe: He basically told us that the process of determining whether someone is fit to have a licence is too complicated, and he was very exercised about having to look at the shape of the bullet and the way that it gets into the chamber. He seemed to think that that was taking time away from concentrating on the fitness of the individual themselves. Is that your experience?

  Mick Fidgeon: No, sir, I would say that in my experience we are talking about the individual and the firearm. We are talking about the individual and whether they are a danger to public safety and to the peace and whether they are fit to be entrusted with firearms. Good reason is a separate matter and is dependent on whether an individual has good reason for that firearm, not on whether that individual is a danger to public safety or to the peace.

  Q252  Mr Winnick: I go back to what one of my colleagues has already asked about the character of Derrick Bird. We can all be wise after the event, and, obviously, it goes without saying how deeply shocked the whole country was by those terrible killings.

  Let us look at the character of that mass murderer: in 1982 he was convicted and fined for drink driving; in 1988 he came to the notice of the police following an argument with a girlfriend; in 1999 he was released without charge after being arrested in connection to an investigation into allegations concerning the making of a demand for payment with menaces; and in 1990 he was convicted on two counts of theft and one count of handling stolen goods.

  How is it possible—I am sure that this question is being asked by the loved ones left behind, as well as the rest of the country—that a person such as that could be allowed to have a licence?

  Chair: Mr Mackey, can we have a quick answer?

  Craig Mackey: The reality is that, in relation to each of those incidents, as far as we know from the records that are left, his firearms suitability was reviewed and it fell entirely within the guidelines. The issue with his making off without payment, to which you referred, is completely unsubstantiated. It is an allegation such as is made against many people every day of the week.

  Q253  Mr Winnick: Yes, indeed. If the guidelines were observed, which doesn't seem to be in question, then, inevitably, the question arises of whether there is something wrong with those guidelines.

  Craig Mackey: I think that that comes back, sir, to the point that your colleague made about looking at and tightening up the guidelines. That was highlighted by the review, and we welcome that.

  Q254  Mark Reckless: With respect to the age restrictions, why does a child have to wait until they are 14 to have a licence for a firearm, when they can get a shotgun licence at any point? Why, if I am correct, can you give a firearm to a child at 14, but not a shotgun until they are 15 and not an air rifle until they are 18?

  Adrian Whiting: They are products of the history of the development of the legislation from approximately 1920 onwards. I believe that the age restrictions in relation to firearms certificates stem from the then popular cadet shooting movement and the age of admission to that, as do a number of other things, such as the minimum calibre for miniature rifle ranges.

  In relation to shotguns, of course, they are subject to a different system of control, because they were not originally covered by that legislation. The legislation sought to cover what we would now call section 1 firearms. Section 2 firearms—shotguns—were brought under a separate system of control at a later time.

  Q255  Chair: Basically, should they not be consolidated? That would be much more useful.

  Adrian Whiting: There is scope to align the systems, but, essentially, it is by dint of history that they are different.

  Q256  Steve McCabe: Mr Whiting, I accept the historical argument, but presumably, as a senior police officer, you wouldn't advocate that a 14-year-old be given a provisional driving licence. How do we justify giving a licence like this to a child?

  Adrian Whiting: When the certificate is granted it does not give the young person the ability to purchase firearms and ammunition, nor does it give them an opportunity to shoot other than when they're supervised.

  Q257  Steve McCabe: But in theory a provisional driving licence does the same. It doesn't allow you to buy the car, and you have to drive under supervision.

  Adrian Whiting: Yes, but—

  Chair: Are you telling the Committee that it is an anomaly that needs to be looked at?

  Adrian Whiting: No, I am saying that the difference between firearms certificate age restrictions and shotgun certificate age restrictions is an anomaly. The fact that young people can obtain a certificate is not an anomaly because they shoot under supervised conditions where the risk of coming into conflict with other people is hugely minimised, which would not necessarily be the case on the road with a provisional licence holder where there are any number of hazards to contend with.

  Q258  Dr Huppert: There is general agreement that it is too confusing at the moment, with lots and lots of different ages. I lose track slightly of what you can do at what age and who you can borrow something from and how old they have to be. If we are to have a unified system, what ages do you think should apply in that?

  Adrian Whiting: The evidence in relation to young people shooting does not give any cause for concern—I am talking about section 1 firearms and section 2 shotguns—around the current system which, for example, enables children younger than 14 to possess a shotgun certificate in order to shoot when they are being supervised.

  Chair: We understand that, but what Dr Huppert is asking is, as you acknowledge that it is an anomaly, what would be a sensible approach to bring these various pieces of legislation together? What is the age that we should allow people to apply? You are the ACPO lead on firearms, so presumably you have a view on this.

  Adrian Whiting: I have a view that, because children as young as 10 have been able to shoot perfectly safely with a shotgun certificate, there is no reason to interrupt that, and I suppose the difficulty is that the corollary follows that if there is no evidence to suggest that children of that age, properly supervised in appropriate conditions, can shoot safely, why would you not apply that to the firearms certificate? What I would say there is that the nature of the shooting—the environment in which it takes place—is different.

  Chair: Of course, but if you were looking at consolidating this and making it one age, so it is not confusing to members of this Committee and the public when they don't know at what age they can apply, what age would the ACPO lead on firearms suggest would be appropriate?

  Adrian Whiting: The minimum age would be 10, I would suggest, Sir.

  Chair: Okay.

  Q259  Bridget Phillipson: If I could turn to the issue of medical records of licence holders, you will be aware that a number of concerns have been raised by the shooting community, doctors and the Information Commissioner about the tagging of medical records. Do you still feel that it would be useful to pursue that proposal and why is that?

  Adrian Whiting: Very much so. I know the Committee has had evidence from other parties, notably the IPCC on this subject. We commenced this work in 2007, looking at the system that I know you are familiar with around tagging medical records so there is an enduring record for a general practitioner to have access to. Because people tend to see doctors who are not necessarily their specified GP and because the licensing takes place every five years for renewal, there would, in my view, need to be an enduring record that they can refer to. Subsequent work when the IPCC became involved a number of months after we had commenced this—some issues arose about the difficulty of holding that record within an NHS records system—simply looked at an option of notifying the GP at grant and renewal.

  Certainly, I think it would be beneficial to have a stepped approach to this if it is difficult to have an enduring system on an electronic record. I think that the issue at hand is that it provides an additional opportunity for a health concern to be raised. The issue with that is that, currently, police are advised only to approach a medical practitioner when we have cause to do so, as opposed to speculatively to see if there is a concern. Clearly, the applicant is expected to detail certain medical conditions on their application, and if they chose not to, this would provide an additional safeguard against somebody doing that, which I would also advocate ought to be an offence. So it is quite important, I would suggest.

  Q260  Bridget Phillipson: Mr Fidgeon, how useful or important is the information you would receive from medical practitioners when determining someone's fitness to hold a licence?

  Mick Fidgeon: At the moment, all we receive is information regarding their signs and symptoms, and in most cases these are referred to the appointed medical practitioner, in the case of Essex, and in many other forces to the force medical examiner. Then a decision is taken regarding that information on whether the individual is still fit to be entrusted with firearms, or whether they are able to hold firearms without a danger to public safety or to the peace. That information is conveyed to us, but we are not medically qualified. It is down to force medical examiners or appointed medical practitioners to make a decision whether that information is information that we can rely on in court should they subsequently appeal.

  Q261  Bridget Phillipson: Returning to the question that Mr Winnick asked earlier in terms of looking at the cumulative nature of offences, or perhaps even allegations, if I were to apply for a job to work with vulnerable people, for example, and was subject to an enhanced CRB check, if I had been arrested for an offence, that would come up even if I hadn't necessarily been cautioned or convicted and that could determine whether I was offered a job—although I appreciate that that would be subject to employment law. Do you think there is a rule there, in terms of using the cumulative nature of offences even when that person would not necessarily be prohibited from having a licence, if cumulatively that would give you a picture of someone that perhaps is having difficulties in their life or is an unfit person?

  Adrian Whiting: Absolutely, it would. To a greater or lesser extent, that would currently be the process. That would be taken into account.

  Q262  Bridget Phillipson: So you're confident that, at the moment, the cumulative nature of concern, even if that wasn't conviction or caution, would lead to that licence being reviewed?

  Adrian Whiting: Yes. Issues outside of conviction, or caution, are currently taken into account. My licensing manager, by way of example, would submit a file to me that might contain arrest information or other information—some of it potentially sensitive that wouldn't wish to share with the applicant or to let them know that we know—and I would make decisions taking that information into account, and, in cases, I have either refused or, indeed, revoked.

  Q263  Nicola Blackwood: Mr Whiting, I am interested to know how the IPCC's recommendations in 2008, which were that the licensing force should be required to approach the doctor and that the applicant, rather than police, should have to pay for any fee that the GP might offer, turned into recommendations from ACPO and the BMA, which are that patients' records should be tagged and that there should be an onus on the GP to raise concerns if there was a change in the status of the applicant. Could you explain how one thing turned into another, the second of which has lots of data protection issues around it?

  Adrian Whiting: Yes, in fact the second issue had actually been in existence prior to the IPCC's involvement, but the IPCC would not necessarily have been aware of that. The initial work with the British Medical Association was to look at tagging the record, so that there was that enduring marker, and so that if a GP changed during the life of a certificate holder, or if a locum was acting, because an issue arose in someone's mental health, for example, during the life of a certificate, the GP service would have some indication that that person was a certificate holder, as opposed to having to wait until the next notification renewal. That was already under consideration, but it was difficult for the very reasons that continue to be an issue at the moment. Although, at that point, it was very difficult, because of the nature of record holding by the NHS, and there were no assurances that I could be given that that information about an individual could be held securely on the GP's record system.

  At that point, I had been involved in some investigative work on behalf of the IPCC, and they have detailed some of the investigations that were relevant. In conjunction with the IPCC, we looked at the potential of, if you like, lessening that opportunity to one of simply notifying the GP at grant and renewal. Of course, the work around the enduring marker has continued, as it were, in the background, and we have now got to a point, as I understand—I am at a meeting tomorrow—where assurances around the security of the information storage are now much stronger. That work has continued, because I think that that is a better opportunity—

  Q264  Chair: Could you write us a note following your meeting? It might be helpful.

  Adrian Whiting: Of course.

  Q265  Mr Burley: On that last point, I am interested in these conditions that people could have that would prevent them from having a licence or would get their licence revoked. As always, I think the devil's in the detail. If you have a GP saying—I don't know if Derrick Bird was clinically depressed, but that was in some of the media reports—that someone is depressed, perhaps temporarily, because their wife had died, would that be a cause for having their licence revoked, and, if so, for how long if they were taking Prozac, which can have a very strong effect on people? If they have some history of alcohol or recreational drug use, is that a cause? It is not clear to me what medical conditions, or, indeed, to use the analogy with criminal records, cumulative number of medical conditions, would lead to someone having their licence revoked.

  Craig Mackey: I was just going to pick up, if I may, on Derrick Bird first. There is no suggestion from anything that we've got from the GP or the NHS that there was an issue in relation to Derrick Bird. I think the sort of circumstances you describe allow an assessment to be made of the potential threat around an individual. If I presented before my GP in a severely distressed state and the GP could see on a screen in front of them a flag that says that I am a certificate holder, and I have a selection of shotguns in the cabinet at home, they might make some different decisions about passing information on. This is about informing that professional judgment. You touched on the point earlier; if the licensing system is the gatekeeper to allow people access to lethal weapons, it is incumbent on all of us to make sure that those systems and processes are right and there are as many checks in that gatekeeping as possible.

  Q266  Lorraine Fullbrook: Mr Mackey, I would like to ask you a bit about shooting facilities and miniature firing ranges under section 11(4) of the Firearms Act 1968, and indeed Home Office-approved facilities. Can you confirm whether Derrick Bird was a member of a shooting club?

  Craig Mackey: Not that we know of, although it is important to point out that you can be a member of a club or a syndicate, providing every member is a certificate holder, and we would not necessarily know about it. We have no record of his being a member of a shooting or gun club.

  Q267  Lorraine Fullbrook: Do you have anything further to add about Mr Whiting's conclusions on the decision to license Derrick Bird? Would you like to add anything?

  Craig Mackey: I don't think there is anything further I can add in relation to that. What I asked, going back to the start of the process, was about ascertaining whether the steps taken were reasonable and in line with the process around licensing and legislation. That was the assurance I sought. Obviously, in a rural county such as ours, with a large number of shotgun and firearm certificate holders across the county, I wanted some reassurance that the system worked. The system, as it was at the time, worked.

  Q268  Chair: I have asked most of our witnesses about the content of violent video games and their effect on young people. Do you have any views on this?

  Adrian Whiting: It's difficult directly to correlate between violence on video games, in films and on television and people's immediate activity, particularly in relation to the use of firearms. I think probably it is linked, but in a much broader sociological spectrum. I don't have any strong view that participation in such games leads inevitably, as it were, to some sort of crime commission. I can understand why the concerns are there—as a parent myself, I share them—but I don't have a strong view that there is a clear link.

  Chair: Mr McCabe—only for the final 10 seconds.

  Q269  Steve McCabe: Given your earlier comments, what do you think should be the age restriction for access to violent video games?

  Adrian Whiting: That is a very different issue from the age at which people can shoot supervised, as I have indicated. Please don't get me wrong when I have given that indication of a youngest age for a certificate; they would still have to be supervised. I would point out that in the entire country there are only 26—some might view that as too many—10-year-olds with a shotgun certificate.

  In relation to your question, I think the current certificating system for age-related content would appear to be fit for purpose. The issue—quite clearly—is in applying it, particularly in the home environment, and ensuring that it is in some way upheld. That is largely an adult's responsibility towards the younger people who would use such games.

  Chair: We will write to put some more points to you; there are a number of other points that we couldn't raise because of time constraints. Thank you very much for coming in today; I know you have postponed a number of meetings, and we are most grateful.

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