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Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I recognise that a great deal can be done, that computers have a large contribution to make, and that the scheme that was added by an amendment to the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 can make a real contribution. The noble Lord is right to imply or expressly to say that it has taken too long to reach this point, but we are making progress. One reason for the delay was to ensure that the scheme that we adopted would actually be used by police forces across the country. Instead of police forces having to deal with their own local systems and a national system, the right solution to adopt was one where they would all be able to use a national system and get the sort of coverage that the noble Lord had in mind when he proposed the amendment that was eventually made to the then Bill.

Earl Peel: My Lords, notwithstanding the Minister's encouraging response, he must show some embarrassment that it is five years since the provision

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became part of the 1997 Act and that the Government have failed to implement it. Is that not an extraordinarily bad record?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I have indicated that matters have taken too long. The critical thing is to identify specifically the progress that we are now making, to identify a target date by which implementation can be achieved, and to make sure that we introduce something that the police actually use. There must be a proper database of firearms certificates, and of individuals who have applied for firearms certificates and been refused.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, the Minister who last replied from the Home Office on the matter was the noble Lord, Lord Bassam. He indicated the need to establish not only a PNC link, but a DNA link with the register itself. Will the noble and learned Lord confirm whether the link has now been established?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I think that my noble friend referred to the fact that the PNC's development of a DNA link, particularly in relation to acquittals, had delayed the building up of the process. I cannot say precisely where matters have got to, but I offer to write to the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia.

Viscount Brookeborough: My Lords, does the Minister agree that his department should have given much better leadership early on rather than waiting for some individual police forces to come forward with their own computerised systems, which have ultimately been incompatible with one another? Is he aware that in Northern Ireland we have had a computerised register for some time? Even that is having to be modernised to come into line with what the Government might wish to see. However, I believe that the specifications are by no means clear, which is causing a lot of disruption among police forces. Matters should surely have been carried out from the top down.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, one has that problem in relation to a large number of areas of public service. The position on local firearms registers is that 42 out of 43 areas have one of two proprietary systems available. Much of that situation built up over time before the amendment introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford. It is unfair to say that the system could have simply been imposed from the top down. One constantly has to try to develop a system that embraces where agencies have got to. That is what we are doing in relation to the national management system.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, does the Minister accept that 13 Questions on this subject have been answered in this House since December 1998? On that occasion, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, replied and, most recently, in January this year, the noble and learned Lord himself responded. In their replies, all Ministers have said that this is a high

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priority issue. Indeed, in November 1999, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, said that it was a priority development, and, in February 2000, he said that the system would be in place in the summer of 2001. Who is in charge of this project? Is it civil servants or Ministers, and who accepts responsibility for the five-year delay?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I have not counted the number of Questions, but I entirely accept what the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, says. She is waving the piece of paper at me in order to prove that there have, indeed, been 13 Questions. I accept that. It is the responsibility of Ministers, working in conjunction with officials, to deliver the register. I have made it clear that the process is taking too long and I have set out in detail the steps that we shall take.

Lord Tanlaw: My Lords, when the noble and learned Lord has reached the target date, will he be able to say how many convicted criminals are holders of firearms licences?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, one of the benefits of adopting a national licensing management system is that one will be able to draw national statistics from the system, including the one to which the noble Lord refers.

Fishing: Dolphin and Aquatic Bird Bycatch

2.51 p.m.

Lord Montagu of Beaulieu asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What action they are taking to reduce the number of dolphins and other cetaceans and aquatic birds illegally caught and killed during fishing operations in United Kingdom-controlled waters.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty): My Lords, my colleague, Elliot Morley, the Minister with responsibility for fisheries, has recently launched a consultation exercise on a UK strategy for the reduction of cetacean bycatch. Of course, other member states are involved in cetacean bycatch in UK waters and, therefore, reduction measures for bycatch require EU action. Commissioner Fischler has been encouraging in his response, but we shall continue to press the matter. Bycatch of aquatic birds is not understood to be a significant problem in UK waters.

Lord Montagu of Beaulieu: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. Is he aware that more than 300 dolphins, whose post mortems proved that they died in terrible agony, have been washed up on the beaches of south-west England? Does he also understand that people are very frustrated by the fact that more consultations seem to be necessary when the

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facts are so well known? For example, nets have been banned in American waters for six years. The aquatic birds to which I referred were albatrosses in the Falklands.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, with regard to the last point, we are about to ratify an agreement on the conservation of albatrosses and petrels in the South Atlantic and elsewhere. On the question of dolphins and cetaceans in UK and nearby waters, we recognise that there are serious problems. They are not caused only by UK vessels, and we recognise that there is a need to find technical solutions to some of them. That is why we are considering the fitting of pingers to fixed nets and are looking at the various ways that we can modify the mobile gear used by trawlers. We have funded the SMRU, the Sea Mammal Research Unit, which is examining possible adaptations of trawling gear. Part of the consultation exercise is to consider the way that that could be adopted.

Lord Mason of Barnsley: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the North Sea drift-net fishery is using nylon monofilament gill-nets? Not only are they taking the salmon which are going north to their spawning rivers; they are also taking dolphins because the gill-nets are so strong. Why do we not stop or ban the gill-net?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, as I believe my noble friend knows, EU standards place limitations on the size of the grid but, frankly, there needs to be a rather large mesh in order to avoid catching dolphins. Therefore, it is necessary that we adapt the gear either to distract or repel the dolphins or to ensure that they can escape. We are considering research on grid separators to go within the nets so that dolphins and other cetaceans can escape from them.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, as has been pointed out, dolphins are caught accidentally in drift-nets, which are intended to catch fish such as tuna. Is the noble Lord aware that dolphins drown because they cannot return to the surface to breathe?

Lord Whitty: Yes, my Lords. That is why we are looking either to provide within the net structure a pinger, which sends a signal to the dolphin with the intention of repelling it and stopping it entering the net in the first place or, in the case of non-fixed nets, the ability to provide within the nets a way for dolphins to get out. That is precisely the point to which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, referred.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, in its press release, the Minister's department states that pingers may be part-funded. Can he assure me that the Government are considering helping fishermen in UK waters to fit the pingers, which will help to solve the problem, as I believe Denmark has done for its fishermen?

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Lord Whitty: My Lords, that is but one issue that the consultation exercise will address. If any help is available, it will apply to UK fishermen but, of course, there are other fishermen in UK waters.

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