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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, this is a very serious subject and it is certainly a very serious matter. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, for his persistence on it. I am chastened by the encouragement that I have received, publicly and privately, from my noble friend Lord Corbett during his pursuance of the matter. I pay tribute to all those who have contributed to this short debate, which I believe is very important, not least because of the importance of the subject matter itself.

In a sense I start where the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, finished, in restating this Government's commitment to tackling gun crime and dealing with its consequences. As the noble Lord rightly said, this Government have not been reluctant to come forward with measures to tackle gun crime. He rightly referred to the Violent Crime Reduction Bill which contains a number of new measures. It ensures that air weapons are sold only through registered dealers. It increases from 17 to 18 the age at which air weapons can be acquired. It makes it an offence for a person of any age to fire an air weapon beyond the boundaries of premises. It makes it an offence to manufacture, import or sell realistic imitation firearms. It specifies manufacturing standards and introduces a minimum age of 18 for buying or selling imitation firearms. It doubles the maximum sentence for the possession of an imitation firearm and restricts the sale of primers and ammunition loading presses. It corrects an anomaly in the provisions requiring a minimum sentence for some firearms offences.

Yes, we do take these seriously, and no, these are not gimmicks. These are real changes and they will bring improvements to the way in which our law works. The reason for that is very clear. As a number of noble Lords have said, there has been an increase in firearms offences, although as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, made very clear, the level of offences involving the use of firearms is very low. We should be proud and pleased that that is the case.

The Earl of Shrewsbury: My Lords, would the Minister also reiterate that it is, by a vast majority, illegally held weapons, not legally held ones, that are used to perpetrate crime?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Earl anticipated a point that I wanted to reiterate; I am grateful to him, because I think he made the point earlier, quite rightly so.
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We have a firm system of regulatory control. I was going to congratulate all governments for the way in which that system has, by accretion, developed; I must say how important I believe that to be.

I take the chastening seriously. Like the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, I am committed, as I was back in 1999, to ensuring that the system that he brought into play by amending Section 39 of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997.

If I repeat the point from time to time, it is simply because we keep hearing suggestions that somehow we are trying to head off this requirement. We are not trying to do that. It is simply not the case. I can do no more than be absolutely honest and say that there have been difficulties, as has been made clear during the course of the debate this evening and as my noble friend Lord Rooker has previously explained very graphically. If the Home Office wanted to block this policy, it could have done so much more easily and I suppose—to be honest—much more cheaply at an earlier point in the process. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, is right to say that if we had come back with an honest—he put it—approach to this issue, saying, "We didn't really think this was necessary or essential", perhaps the House would have listened and taken a different view.

We want to get this system up and running. It is very disappointing when piloting and testing reveals particular problems, but that is after all the main purpose of that process. There is no point in rolling out and trying to run a system unless everyone is confident that it will work and that all the technical difficulties have been resolved. The police would insist on it and rightly so.

I take the view that we wish to look forward rather than backwards. I think the noble Lord, Lord Corbett, was right to remind us of the 10th anniversary of Dunblane. That is, to my way of thinking, an essential reminder of the importance of this. In a sense, this legislation and the effectiveness of this process must at least be the one happy legacy that will be effective in trying to ensure that we better control the use of firearms in our society.

I am going to concentrate on explaining to your Lordships where matters currently stand and how we see this project moving forward. Perhaps I should explain that the National Firearms Licensing Management System, the NFLMS, is an application being delivered by a third-party supplier, together with an interface to the police national computer and to the national firearms certificate holders register, known as the NFCHR, which resides upon it. At the outset, the aim was to meet the strict requirements of Section 39:

The section further provides for the register to be kept by means of a computer, which provides online access to all police forces.

I should perhaps pause here and explain that the framework of the actual certificate holders register has been in place since October 2003. Development work
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to meet the strict requirement of Section 39 has therefore been done. However, that is only part of the story.

It became clear as the development proceeded that the register would need to be populated from records created by local forces, which ran their own systems that provided them with a wider range of functions and information than Section 39 required.

Running those systems and the certificate holders register together would result in a significant disbenefit. To keep both systems working would require double keying of information, which the police understandably regarded as unacceptable. There was also a significant risk that the less useful system—that is, the central NFCHR—would only be spasmodically updated, thereby making it unreliable even as a mechanism for checking whether a person applying for a certificate already had one or, more importantly, had been refused one from another force. Because of that, we came to the view that it would be better to undertake further work to provide a national firearms licensing management system which would both meet the Section 39 requirement spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, and provide significant additional business benefits for the police and the Home Office. That project was initiated in September 2002, which is essentially the starting point of the project that we are considering today.

It is no secret that the NFLMS has faced many delays; there is no point in pretending otherwise. Those delays have resulted from a combination of the time taken to build the system and deal with the issues which arose from that, and the external delays that could not easily have been avoided. For example, there was a freeze at one stage on all new applications to allow a central upgrade of the PNC infrastructure to maintain continuity of service to police forces. There was also a need to develop concurrently a link between the national DNA database and criminal records on the PNC.

Once development of the application was complete, it was necessary to put it through a series of independent tests to verify and demonstrate to police forces its suitability and readiness for service. Two forces volunteered to act as pilots to carry out user acceptance testing, known as the alpha pilot; and live running, known as the beta pilot. One was the Metropolitan Police Service and the other the Lancashire Constabulary.

The beta pilot commenced during the week beginning 14 November 2005 and ended as scheduled on 2 December. As a prerequisite of going live on NFLMS, local force data had to be migrated from the local database to the NFLMS database and a subset of that data was then passed to PNC to populate the certificate holders register. Over 100,000 records were migrated from local systems to the NFLMS, and half of that number were subsequently migrated to the PNC, and in broad terms the migration was successful. However, for reasons that I shall endeavour to explain, there was a 7 per cent failure rate of records getting on to the PNC, and that proved to be disruptive to the
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running of the pilot. Where a record had successfully migrated from local systems to NFLMS but had subsequently failed to migrate to the PNC, the updating of that record, while possible in the NFLMS, generated error messages from the PNC at every stage, and that proved to be unworkable. Records must be synchronised on both the NFLMS and the PNC for effective updating to be carried out.

The reasons for those failures were varied, but can be broadly grouped under the headings of data quality, PNC validation and incorrect mapping. I understand that it was not physically possible to manually work through all of the error messages while managing the day-to-day business and coping with dual running, which required the operators to double key. As one might expect, there were also some variations between forces' working practices and the business rules of the application, which tended to lengthen the process even more. Taking all those issues together, but due primarily to the number of errors in back record conversion revealed during the tests, the two forces decided to revert to their existing systems rather than create an unacceptable and increasing backlog in applications.

Where are we now? PITO is now assessing the lessons learnt from the beta project and considering what needs to be done before roll-out can be instigated. None of that means that the project is fatally flawed. On the contrary, it has shown that NFLMS can meet the requirements of Section 39 even without the PNC link facility—and we should all be grateful for that.

Part of the purpose of the beta project was to test the application against the vagaries of the live environment which has evolved over many years to meet local needs. I should explain that many of the records which failed PNC validation did so because of poorly formatted addresses and postcodes, or minor variations in force working practices. The resulting volume of error messages—which needed immediate attention before processing could continue—proved to be unworkable without creating an unacceptable backlog. That is something which everybody in the firearms world would wish to avoid.

So, how can these defects be rectified? The major issue during the pilot was the failure to migrate a significant number of records successfully to PNC, and to update those records to remain synchronised within the NFLMS. The success of migrating records from local systems to the NFLMS suggests that it may be preferable to do that in the first instance without interfacing to PNC at the same time. That means the systems could not be out of step, and the unacceptable situation of inaccurate information existing on PNC would not therefore arise. I emphasise that compliance with Section 39 would be fully achieved, albeit the register would reside on NFLMS instead of on the PNC. The full business benefit of NFLMS interfacing to PNC could be achieved at a later date, which appears to be the best way forward.
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The police service remains committed to the PNC link, but individual forces do not have the capacity to deliver both day-to-day running and to undertake the data cleansing needed to improve data migration. Removing that problematic interface in the short term appears to be the best way of moving the project forward, and is the most efficient and effective means of delivering a meaningful and useable product in the near future. That will also allow time to resolve data quality issues. There is no all-encompassing, automated process for data cleansing; but PITO has undertaken to assist forces in the process. It is also working with the supplier to resolve other issues arising from the beta project, with a view to re-running it before the end of March.

The delays to this project are regrettable in the extreme, even if they have not always been avoidable. The Government also readily acknowledge that there are problems which need to be addressed across the entire police service in order to achieve a more common approach to introducing new information and communications technology. The greater use of more component-based software is already being considered and we hope that will make it easier to cope with conflicting priorities in the future.

As for this particular database, we remain committed to implementing it and fully expect further piloting to take place by the end of March. That will be based on the lessons learned during the last beta pilot and, assuming that the changes needed to alleviate the problem are successful, PITO then believes that it should be possible to start the roll-out process by April, as the Times said. I know that PITO would be happy to arrange a demonstration for any of your Lordships who wish to know more about how the system is intended to work, so I make that general offer and promise.

It is not the case that the Home Office wants to block this system, nor that there have been efforts to make it unworkable across Whitehall. While I am tempted to take up the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, that we should give it over to the Mayor to run, that is not an offer that I can accept. It is our responsibility to make it work; it is a system with great merit. Noble Lords have spoken with great persuasion and passion on this, and rightly so, but it is our job in government to sort out any mess and muddle arising in the past few years.

I have taken rather a long time going over the detail, but before I sit down it is only fair that I answer one or two specific questions. The noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, asked why the Government have not replaced the Firearms Consultative Committee. The Government were extremely grateful for the valuable work that the original committee undertook, in which the noble Earl played an important part, but we decided that it had come to the end of its useful life and should be replaced by a more wide-ranging, two-tier consultative system. One tier will consider the technical aspects of firearms, and the other the wider issues. We will consider how the new committees might be constituted once we have determined how to proceed with the review of firearms control. We are
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focused on the importance of that, and are intent on proceeding with a firearms advisory committee because of the important work carried out in the past.

The noble Lord, Lord Corbett, asked about the review group that met as recently as yesterday. My understanding is that it debated the lessons learned from the pilot and needed to explore some of the specific changes in the application of the system. I cannot give the noble Lord details of the specific recommendations which will be submitted to a full meeting of the user group on Friday of next week. I can reassure him that the user group consists of representatives of PITO, the supplier and the police forces.

The noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, asked how the project was being controlled. I made some of that clear, but it is under the control of PITO project board and includes representatives of the project's senior users, the Home Office and user group representatives.
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I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, for his persistence on this matter. I have said that many times, as the noble Lord reminded me—on at least six occasions and many other times privately. I remain passionate about this project being put in place, because, like everyone else who has taken part in the debate, I recognise its importance—and Dunblane is seared on all of our memories. Parliament is absolutely right to insist that we proceed with this. Our determination is clear and I have given as clear an explanation as I can, including all the technical jargon, as to why there have been delays, and I or other Ministers hope to report back in due course when the project is up and running and successful, as it needs to be. I thank the House for its forbearance on this matter.

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