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Lord McNally : My Lords, I should like to immediately follow the point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles. This House is not an unreasonable House. If at any time in the past nine years a Minister had come and argued persuasively to the House that the proposed scheme was unworkable, I believe that he would have been listened to and respected. But that has never been Ministers' approach. We have had, as has been said, excuse after excuse after excuse. I do not often boast about my predictions, but on 27 January 2005, almost exactly a year ago, speaking in this House on the delay in bringing in the register, I said that with the noble Lords, Lord Corbett and Lord Marlesford, firmly gripping ministerial ankles, there would be no likelihood of the issue disappearing from our agenda. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, for the way that he has kept up the pressure.

In one way it is almost high farce and one could make references to "Yes Minister". Yet, as the noble Lord, Lord Corbett, rightly reminded us, as we approach the 10th anniversary of Dunblane, it is no joke and no high farce to those who were bereaved there. There is real perplexity about how this could drag on for so long. I really welcome this debate and the fact that the noble Lords, Lord Marlesford and Lord Corbett, have been joined by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, in affixing himself to ministerial ankles. I hope that that is another spur. I was also pleased that the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, took part in the debate. After one of my previous interventions, he courteously wrote to remind me that the real problem of gun crime was illegal, not legal, ownership. I freely accept that and the fact that the vast majority of shooters—I think that that is what they call themselves—are pursuing a sport respectably.

I also found the contribution of the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, extremely useful both technically and in reminding us that, although it becomes almost a joke, it does not help when one of the great departments of state performs so lamentably. As he rightly said, this is not the only issue; as the Leader of the House had to explain not so long ago, by far the worst complaints about responding to Questions and replying to letters relate to the Home Office. Given that it is the department of state that deals with such an important area as law and order, public concern rightly grows.
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It also calls into question the competence of police forces. I do not know whether I would go as far as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, but I have some sympathy with his argument about the national police force and the need for better national co-ordination. As a Member of another place more than 20 years ago, I was absolutely appalled at the Heath Robinson contraptions used to put together data for checking on the Yorkshire Ripper. Officials were sticking pins through cards to find out who had been interviewed and the like. More recently, we had the bungling and misapplication of information in the Soham tragedy.

There is public concern about whether police forces can use modern technology efficiently. Again, that changes the issue from a merry laugh and a talk about "Yes Minister" in action to one of real public concern. As speaker after speaker has emphasised, people want to see real action and competence in this area. I understand and accept what is said in the Home Office's own brief:

One of the things about being in this place and notching up a few decades is the perspective that, although it is probably right to say that the level of gun crime is low, in my lifetime the perception and reality of gun crime have been transformed. One of my earliest childhood memories is of Christopher Craig and Derek Bentley—the latter actually went to the gallows for a gun crime. The shock and horror of a gun crime is not as great today as it was in the 1950s. Today there is a culture particularly linked to drug crime that causes public concern, particularly in the three police areas referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Corbett.

Although there are times when we could almost laugh at this real long-running Whitehall farce, there is public concern about the competence of the Home Office, the police force and Ministers. I am very sorry that my dear old friend the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, has caught this parcel today but I hope that readers of Hansard will see that this is a disgraceful performance at every level, one that at some stage deserves not just a ministerial explanation but a ministerial resignation.

5.45 pm

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Marlesford for initiating this debate. It is an issue of great public interest and—as we have heard in the passionate speeches from all sides of the House—a matter of great interest to your Lordships as well. The assiduity with which my noble friend has doggedly pursued the issue over many years since initiating the amendment to the original Bill is an example to us all.

The Minister will be aware that, unlike my noble friend, I do not have form on this issue. Coming fresh to it, I began as an innocent. Yet, as my researches progressed I was astonished at the catalogue of government statements, promises, commitments and undertakings about Section 39 which have followed in an almost unbroken sequence since the passage of the parent Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997. It is a
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catalogue categorised by one common link: an apparent unwillingness or inability to make any substantive progress on the practical implementation of the provisions of the section.

The major milestones in this inelegant story seem to be as follows. Though the Act was passed by Parliament in 1997, as early as January 1998 the Home Office made a first announcement that the register would be delayed for a year. On 22 January 1998, a Downing Street spokesman was quoted on the subject in the Scotsman as saying:

In 2000, the Home Affairs Committee report Firearms Control, which has been extensively quoted this afternoon, described the absolutely central nature of this operation to the firearms licensing system and, in a dismayed tone, went on to say:

As many noble Lords have said, the late Lord Williams of Mostyn and the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton—from whom we will have the pleasure of hearing in a few minutes—continued to underline the Government's commitment to a speedy establishment of the register. It was next announced, according to my researches, that the system was due to begin operation in the summer of 2001. In the event, the launch was pushed back to August 2004. This was apparently due to problems with procurement, but perhaps that is not surprising since it is understood that the Police Information Technology Organisation, which had been given responsibility for the system, did not even sign a contract with a service provider until October 2003. There were apparently certain problems with the system which led to delays, which the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, described in a memorable phrase as "not easily avoided". That is in the Official Report of 4 November 2004. It is a Delphic phrase indeed.

The topic then re-emerged in the summer of 2005. The system was due to go live on 11 July, but, on 12 July, Hazel Blears MP announced that load testing for the live piloting of the system would resume in the autumn. In October, further announcements by Hazel Blears suggested that implementation would begin in November last year, but the current position remains unclear, with the Government still apparently unable to commit to a start date. According to a report in the Sunday Express on 13 November 2005, the Government are "rushing"—a strange word to use—to make the database operational for all police forces in time for the 10th anniversary of the Dunblane tragedy—to which the noble Lord, Lord Corbett, referred—on 13 March. The noble Lord also referred to the small piece on page 4 of today's Times entitled
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"Gun register delay". I share his hope that the Minister will be able to address this particular issue when he winds up the debate.

This is a sorry state of affairs, as so many noble Lords have said. The Government's "rush" to implement this legislation will apparently take 10 years from the time of the tragedy that gave rise to the legislation in the first place. On these Benches we believe that gun crime is a major problem in the United Kingdom and that the levels are already too high and continue to rise. If the Government were really serious about their commitments to reduce gun crime, they should have ensured that this system, which the Minister's colleague, Charles Clarke MP, has described as central to attempts to tackle the problem of illegally held firearms, was up and running long, long ago.

Perhaps more worrying is that it is feared that the Home Office has lost whatever heart it had for the project in the first place. A Home Office source quoted in the Mirror on 19 November 2005 said:

Delays are not the only unsatisfactory aspect of this issue; a great deal of taxpayers' money has already been spent on a system that has yet to become fully operational nationwide. Hazel Blears stated that the budget for the NFLMS was £4,002,000 for the three years 2002-05 in a Written Answer of 20 December last. But by June 2005 the total had risen to £5.4 million—a figure stated by the Minister's colleague, the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, at col. WA 104 of Hansard on 13 June. This is an overrun of some £2 million, or 34 per cent. Meanwhile, the fact that these frequently repeated commitments remain unfulfilled does not seem to be inhibiting the Government from rushing to legislate further on the topic. The Violent Crime Reduction Bill is due to have a Second Reading shortly in another place. Clauses 26 to 28 of that Bill impose yet more restrictions—this time on the sale of airguns, though extraordinarily this does not cover second-hand or car boot sales—an area which I should have thought was important to cover. The Bill also proposes raising the limit for buying an airgun from 17 to 18 years of age.

In the mean time the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 has just raised the airgun purchasing limit from 14 to 17 years. The Government have not even had time to assess the impact of that change before legislating again. Surely the Minister must agree that instead of these gestures, which I fear play to the gallery, the Government should be concentrating on the detailed work of implementing their nine year-old—or is it eight year, three month-old?—commitment to creating a national firearms register.
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The opinion of my noble friend Lord Marlesford, as reported in the Scotsman on 14 November 2004, was that the failure of this Government to meet their obligations is,

I trust that the Minister will now be able to set my noble friend's mind—and, indeed, those of a number of other noble Lords—at rest with some comprehensive answers this afternoon.

5.53 pm

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