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Earl Attlee: My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords for their kind words. It has been a great privilege to introduce the debate. I agree with nearly everything that has been said and, where I do not, it is probably because I am wrong or inaccurate.

The noble Baroness, Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, talked about insurance. When I was on operations in Iraq, I received a letter from my insurance company telling me that I was not insured for war risks; so, if I was killed, my family would not get the benefit of my house, and my mortgage would not be paid off. That is pretty outrageous.

My noble friend Lord De Mauley suggested smaller, more numerous detachments. He is right. Some units are now too widely dispersed. Small detachments in towns adjacent to the unit's headquarters would be rewarding for a junior officer, because he would have his own bit of real estate.

My noble friend Lord Shewsbury gave further insight into the problem of junior officers. He is right about unnecessary training, but we should never rely on pre-deployment training being available. On Operation TELIC 1, I received negligible pre-deployment training but, in my TA career, I never expected to get much in the way of pre-deployment training, because Ministers never make decisions early enough for the military. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

Firearms

5.01 pm

Lord Marlesford rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what progress they are making in setting up a central register of persons who have applied for or have been granted a shotgun or firearm certificate, as required by Section 39 of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I thank noble Lords who are going to take part in this debate.

On 1 October 1997, Section 39 of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 came into force. It required the Government to set up a central register of persons who have applied for, or been granted, a shotgun or firearm certificate. Eight years and three months later, the Government have still not done so. What private individual would be allowed to get away with failing to comply with the law for over eight years? What sort of example is the Home Office setting to the British
 
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people by this defiance of Parliament? The Association of Chief Police Officers recommended a national register in 1996. There is no dispute inside Parliament on the need for the register.

I have been looking at the back numbers of the magazine Computing, which has taken a professional interest in this failed public project. Their headlines tell a sorry tale. In May 2002, one read: "Whitehall pilots firearms register: database was recommended five years ago"; in October 2002: "UK guns database delayed again"; in March 2003: "Guns database due in summer 2004"; in December 2003: "Work starts on national gun register"; in July 2004: "Police forces start firearms database trial"; in October 2004: "Firearms database delayed once again"; in November 2004: "Home Office blames IT trouble for register delay"; in July 2005: "UK police set to pilot register"; and, in the issue of Computing published today: "New delay to gun register. Data quality problems halt latest police pilots of firearms database". The editorial comment in today's edition of Computing is:

The far bigger and more complicated central register of vehicles and driving licenses, with real time access for all police forces to millions of records, has been fully effective and in operation for over 25 years. If Ministers are to be believed—and of course I believe them—Hansard records their desperate efforts to prod the Home Office into action. The late Lord Williams of Mostyn, who at the time told me privately how frustrated he was with the Home Office over this matter, said in December 1998:

The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, who is kindly replying to this debate, has on no fewer than six occasions reassured the House that:

That was in October 1999.

He later said that,

The Minister's noble friend Lord Rooker briefly carried the torch and he was "fully committed". He, too, optimistically trusted the Home Office:

By January 2003, there were public indications of ministerial disillusion with the Home Office. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Corbett, admitted:


 
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But then he added hopefully:

By January last year, the Government were openly asking the House to help them get a grip on the Home Office. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said:

Two months later, his sentiments were echoed by the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, the present Minister of State at the Home Office:

So I hope that the Government, if not the Home Office, will welcome this debate as a further sharp pressure from the spur.

What is the essence of the problem? There are two possible explanations: first, that the Home Office has, for its own reasons, been deliberately undermining attempts of the Government to meet their obligations under Section 39 of the Act; secondly, that the Home Office is hopelessly incompetent at implementing a centralised computer-based national register of firearms. I would remind the House that the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, told us that the Home Office has already spend £5.6 million of taxpayers' money on the project.

Let us examine the evidence for these two possibilities. On the first, we have the well known "not invented here" attitude of the Home Office which has always resented and resisted ideas from outsiders which it sees as invading its sovereignty. When in April 2000 the Home Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons, then chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Corbett, reported on the delay, and, incidentally, concluded that it regarded the register as,

the Home Office evidence to the Committee revealed an interesting attitude to Parliament. It said that it was,

It would seem that the Home Office is not prepared to allow such parliamentary impertinence to triumph. I believe that it has been playing a game of "Yes, Minister", using every trick to ensure that Section 39 is never implemented. I do not believe that the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, if he has been allowed to see the full official files, will be able to put his hand on his heart and say that he has found no signs of obstruction.

Frankly, I must say that if Home Office Ministers are really incapable of directing that department, admittedly perhaps the most constipated in Whitehall,
 
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they should either split it into manageable proportions or hand it over to politicians who can control it. If the second possibility—that of technical incompetence—is the explanation for the failure, the Government should pull the legislation for national identity cards until they can find an organisation competent to introduce them.

On the firearms register, I make a suggestion which I hope the Home Office will not find too insulting. The congestion charging system by Transport for London was introduced with barely a hitch. It is vastly bigger and more complicated than the national firearms register. So let the introduction of the firearms register be handed over to the Mayor of London.

My final word is this: there are those of us in this House who will not let this matter drop.

5.10 pm


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