Firearms Control - Home Affairs Committee Contents


Examination of Witness (Questions 292-313)

JAMES BROKENSHIRE

16 NOVEMBER 2010

  Q292  Chair: Minister, you are the penultimate witness in our inquiry into firearms. I welcome you most warmly to the Committee. This is your first appearance as a Minister and even though it was six months ago, I congratulate you on your appointment.   

  As you are the first Home Office Minister to come before us since what happened last Thursday with the disorder, is there any update you can give the Committee on what has happened?

  James Brokenshire: Obviously, the policing Minister gave a statement to the House last Thursday. I do not have any further update to offer at this time. As the Committee is aware, the Metropolitan police are undertaking their review of the intelligence and handling of last week's events. Obviously, we await any initial indications from that review, but we certainly commend the statement made by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner and await information that may be forthcoming from the urgent review that is being undertaken.

  Q293  Chair: When you say "urgent review", is there a timetable? We know that the commissioner will have to send his report to the Metropolitan Police Authority and no doubt you will see a copy when it gets to the Home Office. Do we actually have a timetable? There is a possibility of further demonstrations taking place, and we obviously need to learn the lessons of what happened.

  James Brokenshire: Clearly, we do need to learn the lessons of what happened. I don't have a specific timetable at this stage, but my officials and Ministers are liaising. We await the outcome to see whether there are lessons that should be learned in terms of these events as we move forward.

  Q294  Chair: On behalf of the Committee, could I ask whether you could find out whether there is a timetable? That would be helpful.

  On firearms, you've obviously had a chance to look at the Whiting report. When will the Home Office be in a position to respond to it?

  James Brokenshire: Certainly, I very much welcomed the report produced by the assistant chief constable. I think it's been an informative and useful review of the tragic events that we saw in Cumbria. I have met the assistant chief constable since his report was issued. The Home Office is examining the various different recommendations that have come from it.

  We see this as a measured process. We are looking at the recommendations coming from the peer reviews. Equally, we want to ensure that Parliament has an opportunity to debate firearms issues and, of course, to examine recommendations from this Committee. The report is part of that process, and we anticipate responding formally once each of those three elements has been concluded.

  Q295  Chair: Indeed. One of the concerns was that, on behalf of the relatives of the victims, the Home Secretary promised a debate on firearms in the autumn. Do you know why it has not taken place? Is it likely to take place after this Committee reports? Do you know when it will take place?

  James Brokenshire: The Leader of the House of Commons has restated the commitment to have the debate, and it is very important. The timing needs to be confirmed, but, clearly, we are committed to having that debate. I see it as an essential part of the three-element process to ensure that, as part of our careful and measured examination of the terrible events that took place, parliamentarians have the opportunity to contribute and to inform debate before we consider all the facts and the evidence.

  Q296  Chair: I accept that you will want to respond to the recommendations, but one issue that was not covered—it has been raised by several witnesses—is the age limit on when young people can apply for licences. We have taken evidence today from the assistant chief constable, who is the ACPO lead on firearms, and it caused me concern because there are obviously different ages at which young people can apply. For shotguns, it can be any age; for other firearms, it is 14-plus. You're a parent of two young children. Do you have concerns that there are so many different age limits?

  James Brokenshire: The thing that concerns me is whether there is any misuse or risk attached to the age limits. There is no indication of misuse from the information and evidence that I have received to date. Even if someone is entitled to possess a weapon at a particular point in time, there is the requirement for supervision, and there are certain other issues that relate thereto.

  My focus is on ensuring that we look at the potential harms in the evidence that is there, but, clearly, we rule nothing in and nothing out at this stage in terms of the recommendations and any other information that may be forthcoming.

  Q297  Steve McCabe: Minister, when pressed by the Chairman to identify a common age for access to weapons under supervision and for licensing, assistant chief constable Whiting said that, on balance, he thought it should be 10. Would you agree with that?

  James Brokenshire: The current position, as I understand it, in relation to shotguns is that the age is 10. Clearly, we will reflect on the evidence provided to see whether any harms, dangers or risks emerge. I am not aware of any directly, but, clearly, we will need to reflect on the evidence that's provided to us in forming our response to the recommendations that may or may not be made.

  Q298  Mr Burley: There are lots of different IT databases involved in this area. There is the police national computer, the national firearms licensing management system, NABIS, and so on. Tony McNulty famously said that he didn't think there would be any value in linking those systems together. It would obviously involve some cost to do so, because of the low instances of legally held firearms used in gun crime.

  Is the view of your predecessor one that you share, or do you think that now there is a business case for linking up the different IT silos to get better information and try to stop some of the tragedies that we have seen happening?

  James Brokenshire: I am sorry that I smiled slightly, but I may be the author of the question that was posed and which produced the answer from Mr McNulty. I am now in a position to answer my own question, which is an interesting situation to be in.

  Chair: Give us the answer.

  James Brokenshire: I did raise the question; this is probably going back two years in terms of the relevant different databases that exist. It is a question that I posed to officials on becoming a Minister with responsibility in this area. There is a linkage between the police national computer and the national firearms licensing management system. There is an existing interface that operates in that direction so that criminal records can be checked, and we must ensure that that operates effectively.

  In relation to NABIS, because that deals with forensics I suppose that it is a slightly different issue, albeit that pilots are being examined in Manchester and Greater London where shotgun owners are effectively providing—or having available—spent cartridges. That could be loaded on to the NABIS system if there were thefts or other issues that might arise at the time. There is starting to be a linkage in that way, albeit that the information I have received indicates that the use of legal weapons—section 1 shotguns—in the context of crimes is limited. The scheme being created is interesting. I am certainly monitoring with quiet interest what ACPO is doing in the area.

  Q299  Mr Burley: We have had some conflicting evidence on the issue of legal firearms being used illegally. Some evidence suggests that that is everywhere, but other evidence says that they are hardly used at all. I am still quite confused about the reality. One of the suggestions was that firearms should not be kept in a domestic dwelling and that cartridges and ammunition should be separated from the guns and kept in secure locked houses in the country. Do you have a view on any of those points?

  James Brokenshire: Certainly, I have heard some of the evidence that has been given to this Committee. I think that there are issues to be balanced between the practicalities of location and what can be delivered. Again, I am genuinely reflecting on all the information and evidence being provided, and we will form a view once the relevant steps have been undertaken in terms of our analysis of what has been forthcoming.

  Q300  Lorraine Fullbrook: I am very concerned about the suggestions that have been made to the Committee about keeping firearms away from dwellings and so on. If we have legislation that puts firearms into buildings, and the criminal fraternity know exactly where they are, would that not lead to a higher rate of theft of firearms?

  James Brokenshire: I think it is these very practical issues that need to be considered and thought through properly. For example, if you were to prescribe weapons to be put in outhouses rather than domestic dwellings, that might increase or change the risk that may be attached to thefts under those circumstances.

  We need to examine all the options, take all the evidence and think the issue through very carefully. As a Government, we need to have that element of public protection at the forefront of our minds in examining such issues. Therefore, the facts, and the example that you have given, are quite pertinent as to why we need to tread carefully when examining what options may or may not be appropriate.

  Q301  Mark Reckless: The Committee has been told that the possession and use of firearms is governed by 35 separate pieces of legislation. We heard earlier that even Dr Huppert struggles to recall all the interlinking provisions. Has the time come to consolidate firearms legislation?

  James Brokenshire: There are a number of issues at play here. I appreciate that this was, I think, a recommendation made in a previous Home Affairs Committee report. It is about balancing off complex areas of law versus ease of access and guidance that may apply to assist in that process. Clearly, if there is guidance there—and there are issues around whether the guidance itself should be updated, as I understand that it has not been updated since around 2002, and various legislative changes have taken place around that—what is the optimum way to deal with any concerns that may be forthcoming?

  It may be that, by creating new law, you add uncertainty. That is always the risk when you seek to consolidate or legislate. Sometimes that might add the opportunity for new legal arguments to appear and therefore greater uncertainty in law to exist. I hear a number of the points that have been made in the past and I know have been made in evidence given to this Committee to date.

  The issue needs to be examined quite carefully and we have not formed any conclusions on this. There are risks attached to going down one route, as contrasted to another and where the guidance itself might actually be an effective way of dealing with at least some of the concerns that have been identified.

  Q302  Alun Michael: You referred, in relation to Mark's question, to consolidation, but isn't there a case for some simplification? We have heard evidence that officers who are dealing with firearms issues often find it difficult to understand all the different requirements—in respect to different weapons, different age groups and all the rest of it. Some simplification might enable more effective enforcement of the requirements.

  James Brokenshire: Questions have been flagged by relevant witnesses to this Committee on whether there is a need for simplification and whether putting everything in one place would aid some sort of ease of access. Again, it is just thinking this through carefully, about what is appropriate. If it is about ease of access, it may be a question of guidance that would facilitate that in a more speedy and perhaps more efficient way.

  The question is whether any new areas need to be addressed in a different way; obviously, that might lead you in a different direction. However, I caution on changing the law for the sake of it, unless there is an identified need, because of the legal uncertainties and the case law practice that can emerge based on a specific use of language. Sadly, as a lawyer before entering the world of politics, I know that the turn of language—

  Chair: You don't have to be sad about that.

  James Brokenshire: It is a confession, Chairman. Sometimes just a very small change can have a very significant effect. So I hear the genuine evidence that is being provided on this, but we need to examine this very carefully. That is why I have not formed any view, because of the potential risks that may emerge as a consequence of going down that particular option.

  Q303  Mr Winnick: The previous Government accepted a number of the Home Affairs Committee's recommendations at the time on one or two matters which have been raised already about firearms, including clearer and more up-to-date guidance for the police, raising the age of the unsupervised use of firearms and so on. Do you know why those recommendations have not been implemented although they were accepted?

  James Brokenshire: I cannot comment about why that may have been the case under the previous Government. I can speculate that a number of changes were brought in during that period in terms of the national firearms licensing management system. Various other pieces of legislation were introduced over what now amounts to virtually a 10-year period, as well as the creation of NABIS. I can only speculate that the previous Government felt that there were other priorities, or that the complexities or some of the changes that were brought in perhaps deserved a re-look in relation to those pre-existing recommendations. Clearly, this Administration are not jumping to any specific conclusions. We are seeking to take a measured, not a knee-jerk, approach. Therefore, we will examine carefully any further recommendations, or re-establishment of recommendations, that this Committee may wish to make.

  Q304  Mr Winnick: All Governments make, they say, measured approaches—we wouldn't expect any other expression. You will be pleased to know that neither I nor my colleagues hold you responsible for the actions of the previous Government, positive or negative as the case may be, but it would be useful if you could send us a note about what recommendations were accepted by the Government at the time and what the present Government intend to do when those recommendations have not been put into effect.

  James Brokenshire: If I may, Mr Winnick, it may well be that this Committee may wish to take a different view from the recommendations that were made in the original—

  Q305  Mr Winnick: That may well be. Nevertheless, the recommendations were accepted at the time and were far from party political. They were accepted, either at the time or now, but they have not been put into effect. Could you send us a note on that?

  James Brokenshire: If I could just say, I think it is important that the Government provide a response on the basis of all the evidence that is subsisting, so the evidence and recommendations that this Committee itself produces and, indeed, the parliamentary debate that we wish to see, will inform our decision-making process. Therefore, it may be almost premature to reach a formalised conclusion on a recommendation when other factors may come into play.

  Q306  Chair: Can I suggest a way forward? We will produce this report very shortly, and, when we do so, we will make reference to our previous recommendations. You can then respond to both of them at the same time. Would that be helpful?

  James Brokenshire: Yes, I would certainly be pleased to do that. It is very much our intention to respond in that way.

  Q307  Bridget Phillipson: Minister, if I could turn to the Raoul Moat case and the Northumbria force area, questions were raised about intelligence sharing between the prison service and the police on the release of Mr Moat. I appreciate that the case itself is under investigation by the Independent Police Complains Commission so you probably won't want to talk about it specifically, but more generally do you think that the processes in place are sufficiently robust for sharing that information?

  James Brokenshire: There are robust systems in place to gather, use and share intelligence. All prisons have a full or part-time police intelligence officer, and protocols exist around the sharing of intelligence between the prison service and police forces. Clearly, we will wish to learn from any recommendations from the IPCC report, but we are confident that there are robust measures in place to ensure that intelligence is properly shared with the police.

  Q308  Dr Huppert: Minister, you have the wonderful title of Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Crime Prevention. What is your strategy for long-term violent crime prevention?

  Chair: In five minutes.

  James Brokenshire: I was going to ask how long you have got. The Government will produce their crime strategy shortly, which will answer in detail a lot of the question that you, Dr Huppert, rightly identify. I think it is an equal combination of strong enforcement, early years intervention and stopping young people who are going down a path that leads them to gang crime or violent crime. It needs to be multifaceted. I am sure that when you read the strategy once it is published, you will see that it covers enforcement, prevention, early years and ensuring that we effectively deal with violent crime, which remains far too high.

  Q309  Dr Huppert: I look forward to reading that in detail. To what extent do you see tackling the supply of firearms as part of the solution to that?

  James Brokenshire: Supply is part of that, which is one of the reasons why we have announced the proposal to create the national crime agency to ensure that our borders are more effective and that we have a strong response to organised criminality. Supply is part of the issue, but it is not the only issue. I think there are other factors in preventing young people from becoming involved in gangs, ensuring that we take firm action against gangs, as well as organised criminality, which is why I think the National Crime Agency is an important step forward.

  Q310  Dr Huppert: You have talked about the supply of firearms in terms of criminality and gangs, but not in terms of the general supply of firearms. Do you have comments on that?

  James Brokenshire: Clearly, we have some of the strongest laws and restrictions in relation to firearms in Europe and arguably the rest of the world. I think that is why we are focusing on the recommendations that will be coming forward and considering those issues carefully and whether any appropriate changes might need to be made to improve on that. So I would not like to give the impression that we think everything is perfect or that things might not need some form of modification. If risks are identified, we will consider them very carefully in terms of the existing licensing arrangements and any other steps that may be appropriate. It is a multifaceted approach and there is not one single issue. Clearly, licensing, how we deal with criminality, the supply of illegal weapons—all of those things together—are important to provide the protection that we all want to see.

  Q311  Chair: I have asked a number of witnesses this question. As I have said, you are the parent of two young children. What effect do you think violent video games have on the way in which people behave? Obviously it is not a Home Office responsibility, although the Home Office is involved. It is a Culture, Media and Sport responsibility. Do you have any views on this?

  James Brokenshire: It is interesting looking at the personal view and as a parent I have my own personal concerns about the possible impact of violent video games on my children and children more generally. But it is then a question, I suppose, of the Government analysing whether there is robust evidence that would support further restrictions. This was something that Professor Tanya Byron looked at as part of her review. Indeed, changes have been proposed in the Digital Economy Act 2010 in terms of age restrictions on video games. So changes are now coming through in relation to video games and it is a question of reflecting on what impact those changes may have in this context.

  Chair: It may be appropriate to have further research on this before coming to a conclusion. The people who are strongest on this argument are the shooters. When they came to give evidence to us they were very concerned about the impact of violent video games on young people.

  Q312  Mr Winnick: When Conservative Ministers state, as you just have, that we have the strongest firearms controls in Europe, do you accept that there may be a degree of suspicion that that means that the Government do not necessarily have the open mind that you and the Home Secretary have spoken about on the possibility of extending controls in view of the horror that took place in Cumbria?

  James Brokenshire: I have said very clearly to the Committee that we have not ruled anything out and we have not ruled anything in. We are reflecting very carefully on the recommendations in the report that Assistant Chief Constable Whiting has produced. As I have said, I have already discussed some of his findings with him. We will examine the responses that come through from this Committee and indeed, issues that may be highlighted. We need to be proportionate. We need to examine any gaps or risks that may be highlighted. It is a question of taking a measured approach and, as both the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary have highlighted, we are not going to take a knee-jerk approach but we will consider carefully and responsibly issues that may be highlighted and respond in that proportionate and measured way.

  Q313  Mr Winnick: The gun lobby is pretty strong in Britain, although nowhere near as strong as in the States. Is that not so?

  James Brokenshire: I can only comment on the Government's position. We are looking at these issues extremely carefully. Naturally, the Government take their responsibilities to protect the public seriously. If factors are emerging, it is our duty to consider them appropriately.

  Mr Winnick: Let's hope so.

  Chair: You mentioned the United States. The Committee's final witness in this inquiry is the Attorney-General in Washington DC. We will take evidence at 2 o'clock today. The Committee is adjourned until then. May I thank you, Minister, for coming to give evidence?

  James Brokenshire: Thank you.




 
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