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Lord Corbett of Castle Vale : My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, on holding this debate and pay tribute to his tenacious persistence over this matter—nine long and weary years. I am so glad that my noble friend Lord Rooker, who is now exiled to Northern Ireland, has encouraged us to keep on pressing the Government about it. I also make immediately clear to my noble friend Lord Bassam that any brickbats I may hurl around this Chamber are not directed at his sensitive head. They will have an address on them when I use them.

The backdrop to this debate is that we are in seven weeks away from the unhappy 10th anniversary of the massacre at Dunblane Primary School of 16 innocent children and their head teacher, Gwen Major. Our deep sympathies remain with their families and with those injured. That massacre was carried out by Thomas Hamilton, whose behaviour and mental condition meant that he should never have been allowed to handle or hold any kind of firearm. That horrific event and another at Hungerford reveal that the police often simply had insufficient information about those holding licences and no way of checking that an application made in Plymouth which was refused was not repeated in Preston or Peebles.

That is why the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, persuaded this House of the need to set up a national register of those applying for certificates, holding them and those whose certificates had been renewed. That was when the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 was going through this House. Two years later, nothing had happened. In April 2000, the Commons Home Affairs Committee, which I had the privilege to lead, in its unanimous report on the controls over firearms, concluded:

Nine years later, the national firearms registration system is still not operating. It piles dismay on disappointment to be now told that one of the reasons
 
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for the failure of the pilots last November in two forces—the Metropolitan Police and Lancashire Police Authority—was the shambolic state of present police firearms records. Poorly formatted addresses and postcodes were examples given, as well as the problems of national police forces being able to use IT to communicate one with the other because of the whims in system selection by chief constables.

I have to tell the Minister—and I want him to make this clear to those responsible in the Home Office—that the seeming inability of the Association of Chief Police Officers and Home Office officials to get the national registration system in place is a betrayal of those parents whose children were savagely taken from them at Dunblane. The delay is a litany of deception, deceit and duplicity, which leads me to believe that some senior police officers and senior Home Office officials do not want the registration system in place. I firmly believe that there are strong grounds for the National Audit Office to investigate what has gone on and why.

What has happened is more like the Keystone Kops than a modern and efficient police service. It is not the £5 million to £6 million that has been spent to such small effect, it is the frustrating and obstruction of the will of Parliament on behalf of people to whom promises of better control over firearms were made. Successive Ministers were told by officials that one reason for the delay was the need to give priority to the establishment of a link between the police national computer criminal records and the new national DNA database. That was achieved in November 2001, although I was not told about it until my noble friend Lady Scotland answered a Written Question from me on 30 June last year. To my knowledge, no Minister had given that information before. That was four years ago, but as one excuse departs, another one comes along immediately behind. On 4 November 2004, my noble friend Lord Rooker told the House that a pilot of the new system was run in the summer of 2004. Unhappily it could not print the certificates, which some may see as a major drawback, and the system was much too slow for the police operational service—which seemed to have plenty of time on its hands. That is after nine years.

On 4 October in 2000, in their response to the Home Affairs Committee report, the Government pledged that,

That would be the end of 2001 or early 2002. Like every other target given in the development of this database, it was not met. The last promise on live testing of the system was that it would start at the beginning of July 2005. That was from my noble friend Lady Scotland on 22 March 2005. I will not surprise your Lordships by saying that that did not happen either.

Testing did not start until November and, after two or three weeks, it was abandoned because of data errors. I understand that a project review group met as lately as yesterday to assess the situation. I am hoping that the Minister can tell us what it decided; although
 
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I read in the Times this morning in a small news report that we are now promised that it will go into operation in April. Perhaps the Minister will have time to comment on that.

I understand that the revised pilot testing—I thought it was planned for March, but it has slipped again even before it is announced—will be in April. I ask him to confirm this. But, having been told years ago, and consistently, that the system was no good without an interface with the police national computer, can he confirm that this revised testing will be done without using this available interface? As I say, as fast as one problem is put up and seemingly overcome, another one comes behind and overtakes it.

Gun crime rose by 5 per cent in the year to June last year, even though it is a rare crime. I have to say that two in every three offences happen in the Metropolitan Police area, in Manchester and, sadly, in my home area of Birmingham and the West Midlands. Over the same period there has been a drop of 8 per cent in the criminal use of handguns and a decrease, from 70 to 60, in homicides involving firearms. I especially welcome the new fund, which has supported 179 community groups in England and Wales, on gun crime and related issues and which has been running since May 2004.

There is such concern over the absence of a national firearms management system because it is vital to the drive to contain and reduce gun crime. It will provide for the first time intelligence available to every police force on a single accessible system. That is the nub of the thing and that is the vital system the police need to have. More than that, it will demonstrate that the Government are serious about this issue and add a sense of security to those communities whose lives are blighted and threatened by crimes involving guns.

5.18 pm

Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Corbett, in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, on obtaining this debate. I also congratulate him on the remarkable persistence that he has shown over the years in pursuing this matter. I admit to being a newcomer in this regard, but I am not a newcomer in trying to do battle with the Home Office in order to get them to recognise the need to do things that are clearly self-evident.

In 1989, when I was commanding the field army, we had a home defence exercise, during which I was trying to persuade the police, fire services and a number of voluntary organisations to take part in a weekend exercise in the park which would test the response to natural disasters and other emergencies. It was a most appallingly frustrating business trying to get the Home Office to respond. One day, I went down to my briefing centre and found written on the blackboard, the words, "Cast your bread upon the waters . . . and you will get soggy bread". Underneath were the words, "The Home Office".
 
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In 1997—I do not know what it is about 1997, the year in which this saga started—another organisation with which I am associated conducted an experiment in a young offenders' establishment that used a mixture of minerals, fatty acids and vitamins to conclusively prove that, using the right mixture, you could reduce anti-social behaviour by 40 per cent. The Home Office questioned the data and put in its own statistician. He came back saying that the data was 92 per cent statistically pure—an unheard of result—and that he had never come across such excellently conducted research. Nine years later, we are still waiting for action from the same Ministers whose names have been cited in the roll-call of those who have tried to get the register in place. Only last Thursday, I received a message from the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, saying that she had agreed to another trial—nine years later. I hope that that is a portent that the register may also see the light of day in 2006.

I have a particular reason for wanting a register of firearms, bearing in mind my military background: its need for all those who are involved in any way in law and order activities against crime and terrorism. It is frustrating not to have it available; I often wondered why it is not.

When I looked for a reason, I was forced back to the Royal Commission on the Police of 1962, which is the last time that there was a serious outside look at the structure of the police. Since then, there have been a number of internal inquiries. The latest, following the recommendation of the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, was discussed only last week in the other place and I look forward to it being discussed here. At the end of the royal commission report, there is a dissenting verdict by Dr AL Goodhart, the father of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, who plays such a vigorous part in the activities of this House from the Liberal Democrat Benches. Dr Goodhart's objection was that many activities involving criminals required something more efficient and effective than separate, local police forces. He called for something akin to a national police force. He stated:

He concluded:

We should consider the consequences of the delay in the introduction of the register for the people who will get most value from it, the police; nine years later, we are still waiting for it. I suspect it is because there is no one champion in the police, which there would have been if there was some form of national police force, to drive home the need to have it to make police operations collectively more effective. I have long been
 
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in favour of a national police force, especially for serious crime—the end of the spectrum that makes local policing and the exchange of information between different forces so complicated and difficult that it does not happen. In considering the implementation of this law, which has waited so long to be actioned, it may be that this is another reason for going for more efficient policing to make certain that someone is in charge of seeing that this long-needed register is at last brought into action.

5.25 pm


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