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The Earl of Shrewsbury: My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Marlesford on his thorough persistence on this matter. I declare an interest as the former chairman of the Firearms Consultative Committee, the current chairman of the British Shooting Sports Council and president of the Gun Trade Association. It is suffice to say that I am slightly enthusiastic about the shooting sports industry.
I well remember my noble friend's persuasion of this House to pass an amendment to provide for a central register on computer of all firearms licence holders. Among many from all parties, I, too, voted for it. I thought that it was an excellent idea. In official evidence submitted by the Home Office to the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, as mentioned already by my noble friend, it said that it was,
I find that fascinating. I was at that time chairman of the Firearms Consultative Committee, whose remit it was to advise the Home Secretary on matters concerning firearms. My vivid recollection is that such a register was discussed widely by the FCC and supported by the representatives of the Association of Chief Police Officers of England and Wales, the British Shooting Sports Council and the representatives of the Forensic Science Service. If my memory does not fib to me, the reason behind this thinking was that such a register on computer would enhance the safety of the public, which is the most important single thing here; would add considerably to the safe and effective operation of the firearms licensing system; and would be of considerable use in the tracing of stolen firearms. Finally, it was regarded by the shooting organisations as being a positive step forward. All that together is seriously positive, which you do not often get in the gun world.
Yet, here we are some eight or nine years later, following delay after delay, approaching nearly £6 million in costs and with an awful lot of egg left on the face of many Ministers and the Home Office. Why does the Home Office appear to be so against the register? Why has this astonishing exercise in waste and inefficiency occurred? Who is to blame? Surely, in these days of great high technology, it cannot be without the wit of the Home Office and its technical advisers to come up with a workable system. It simply cannot be that complicated.
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I wonder whether the Minister can help with another slightly related matter, which regards slippage from the Home Office as well. I mentioned the FCC, which was abandoned recently by Her Majesty's Government. But when it went, there was an undertaking, as I believe it, in 2004 to replace it with a firearms advisory committee. No more has been heard about this. Nothing seems to have been done on that front. Yet the Government are always stating their intention to bear down on gun crime. Surely, this is a tool in that initiative. In addition, where is the promised summary of the Government's controls on firearms consultation exercise in 2004? Yet again there has been slippage.
My noble friend is right. It is absolutely proper for him to harry Her Majesty's Government on the matter of this register. It is a thoroughly unsatisfactory state of affairs which must be concluded without further delay.
Viscount Eccles: My Lords, I was persuaded by my noble friend Lord Marlesford to join in this debate. He said, "Don't you realise that this whole thing started before you were here for your first short incarnation and it is still going on now that you have come back into the House?". I must declare an interest. I have a shotgun certificate, which is issued by the county of North Yorkshire police from the county town of Northallerton. It lasts for a number of years; it has a photograph; it has the number of the gun, which is unique; it has the maker of the gun, which is completely certain; it has my date of birth; and it has the correct address and postcode. If necessary, I could give my unique national insurance number. I am sure that all that information is stored on a computer, because I am always reminded in good time before the certificate runs out. Moreover, they always check that the gun is being kept in secure storage and, of course, you cannot buy cartridges unless you present your certificate. In the north of England, shops insist on seeing the certificate. I do not always go to the same shop, but the shopkeeper always takes a good look at the certificate.
The data held on that certificate, together with my national insurance number, are quite sufficient to create a database. No more information is needed. I have been involved in a certain number of databases. They can be set up with conventional software and IT consultants are not necessary. Two bright 24 year-old graduates with computer skills sitting alongside two senior policemen who understand what is involved and what they want could set up the database within a year. In the ordinary purposes of private industry, if we could not create that sort of database in about 12 months, we would be thoroughly ashamed of ourselves.
The puzzling question is this: what has happened in this strange situation? Members on the Back Benches can only speculate, but I believe that we have a certain public interest reason for being told about this. The lessons that need to be learnt here surely go far and
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wide, more particularly since the players are under the same ministerial control; that is, the police and the Home Office.
It has been said that one police computer cannot talk to another. That is true, but it is no bar to a database. As long as the database is held on a computer system that uses around three computer languages it will accessible by all police computers, which would be able to send the information on. What may have happened here is an outbreak of what I call the "bells and whistles syndrome". What is wanted has not been decided. Such is the structure of the committee, along with a lack of project control, that no one has made a decision on what is needed.
At one end of the scale, every policeman encountering someone with a gun would have a handheld IT device. He could see whether the gun is the one the person says it is and whether it is the subject of a firearms certificate or shotgun licence. He could then ask whether the person is the holder of the certificate. To go that far would be complicated. Instead, we could make it possible for a policeman to communicate with an information centre capable of accessing the register. Someone could call the policeman back on his mobile telephone within 10 minutes and tell him what the situation is.
Reference has been made to large, complicated systems with names like Phoenix and others that I cannot recall. Can the Minister explain the structure of this project? How has it been controlled? Am I right in suspecting that a large committee is looking for all sorts of things, but is without the power of decision? When that is the case, one must remember that it is in the interests of IT consultants to ensure that lots of questions remain unanswered because their taxi meter is ticking.
I want to touch on only one other aspect, which has been referred to by other noble Lords: the relationship between the Home Office and Parliament, in particular with the House of Lords. Of the Written Questions tabled before 20 December, there are, I think, 48 that have not yet been answered. Over 20 out of the 48 belong to the Home Office. That is not good for respect between ourselves and the Home Office, and this is particularly important at a time when so many of the really important issues facing us impinge upon the Home Office's role. The Home Office is, along with the Treasury and the Foreign Office, one of the three leading ministries. It is surely not in anybody's interests that we do not have a good relationship with the Home Office.
I have one more reference: there is at the moment a member of the Statutory Instruments Committee with whom there has been an exchange about a letter sent to us by the Home Office, which has been described as "discourteous;" it has also been described in rather stronger terms. The chairman of the committee has been in correspondence, and it has now been discussed with senior Home Office officials who came to a meeting and expressed no knowledge of the matter, although of course it was to do with statutory instruments. I feel very strongly that this is not a
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situation that should be allowed to continue. If indeed it has been decided by some combination of the Home Office and the police that it is not worth having a register, why does the Minister not introduce a very short piece of legislation so that they no longer have the obligation to do it? However, if they have the obligation to do it, it really does need to be done.
In conclusion, my feeling is that, given all the difficult issues of today, public policy demands that we get this sorry saga behind us, and that we have a full and open explanation of how it has come about, in order that we can all learn lessons for the future.
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