HL Deb 25 April 1978 vol 390 cc1712-39

7.28 p.m.

Lord SWANSEA rose to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Firearms (Variations of Fees) Order 1978 (S.I., 1978, No. 267) be annulled. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the first Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. But of course what I have to say will apply equally to both Motions. This subject of increases in fees for firearms and shotgun certificates was last debated in December 1976, on an Unstarred Question initiated by myself. I was reading that debate again before I came into your Lordships' Chamber, and I shall endeavour to spare your Lordships by not repeating some of the arguments that I used on that occasion.

Only yesterday I returned from Jersey where I have been taking part in a shooting competition at international level, the championships of the European Division of the Commonwealth Shooting Federation, in which no fewer than seven countries were taking part. It is run on similar lines to the Commonwealth Gaines. Talking to some of the competitors, I found great concern expressed at these fresh proposals. Two or three people said to me: "When are they going to stop clobbering the shooter? Leave us alone and chase the people who really matter".

The Government are running true to form in their apparent policy of clobbering the shooter as well as in the manner in which these and earlier orders have been introduced. If I may take your Lordships back a few years, the history of the increases on the present principles starts from 1975, when the fees for firearms and shotgun certificates ceased to be nominal sums and were expressed officially as reflecting the current costs to the police in administering applications. At that time in 1975 the fee for a firearm certificate was raised to £7 and that for a shotgun certificate, both on initial application, to £2.

There were also corresponding increases for renewal, variation and replacement of lost certificates.

During 1975 the Home Office carried out a review of police administration costs in relation to this matter and, as a result, further increases were announced in 1976. I would just remind your Lordships of the manner in which that order was laid. It was made on 26th August in the middle of the Summer Recess; it was laid on 2nd September, still in the middle of the Summer Recess; and it was made effective on 4th October—only four days after your Lordships' House had returned and 10 days before the other place returned from the Summer Recess. So there was no real opportunity given for Parliament to debate those orders on that occasion.

The MINISTER of STATE, HOME OFFICE (Lord Harris of Greenwich)

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt. I am listening with great care to what the noble Lord is saying, but he is on an entirely false point here. The timing of the increases he is talking about in no way reduced the rights of Parliament to pray against the orders in the way in which the noble Lord has this evening.


My Lords, I accept what the noble Lord has said, and I should like to return to that point concerning the rights of Parliament later. As regards the present orders, that for England and Wales was made on 27th February, laid on 7th March and became effective on 1st April, with the Easter Recess covering that period—because this House did not return until after 1st April. The Home Office letter dated 21st February gave advance notice to the interested bodies—to the police, the British Shooting Sports Council, the National Farmers' Union and others—but it made it quite clear at the same time that no consultation was possible and that the order became effective from 1st April. 1 would only ask: where is the fire? Why was it essential for this order to come into force on 1st April? Any day would have done, because firearm certificates and shotgun certificates do not expire on a fixed date in the year.

I should still like to know the answer to a question I put on the last occasion. I cannot see why it is possible for an order to come into effect before the end of praying time. Parliament has a right to consider every order that is made and laid; and to bring an order into effect before praying time has expired is simply cocking a snook at Parliament and taking it for granted. I would seriously suggest that we should review Parliamentary procedure in respect of orders and make it impossible for an order to come into effect before praying time has expired, or, alternatively, to change the procedure so far as the Firearms Act is concerned and make it subject to Affirmative Resolution instead of Negative Resolution. I wrote to the noble Lord opposite on this point last year and he gave me a flat refusal on this point, without producing any really satisfactory reasons.


My Lords, I apologise for again interrupting, the noble Lord. I cannot recall the correspondence, but no doubt the point I would have made would be that this required an amendment of the law.


My Lords, I am aware of that, and the Government have said on more than one occasion that they intend to introduce legislation at a suitable opportunity to amend the Firearms Act further. Dare I hope that is one point they have in mind. To compare this wth the Firearms Act for Northern Ireland, orders under that Act are subject to Affirmative Resolution and, for the safeguarding of the rights of the citizen, I would suggest very strongly that the same procedure should be applied to the Firearms Acts in Great Britain. The manner in which these orders have been laid strikes one as being very similar, and I am tempted to wonder whether it is more than just coincidence. Are we to expect further orders to be laid in the Whitsun Recess, in the summer Recess or during the Christmas Recess, when we have no opportunity to consider them properly?

If the Government wish their proposals to be accepted as necessary and reasonable in relation to administrative costs, I am perfectly prepared to believe them if they can justify what they have done. But they cannot expect their figures to be taken as read. Perhaps I might read to your Lordships the Home Office letter announcing the increases. It says this: In view of criticism of the costing methods used in the 1975 review which formed the basis for the existing scale of fees, more detailed guidelines were provided to the Forces taking part in the 1977 Review and the proposed new fees are based on returns which reflect all properly attributable police costs. The increases are the minimum required to cover higher administration costs. This, I fear, leaves no scope for consultation and the purpose of this letter is to give the Association and the other recipients advance notice of the Home Secretary's intention to make an order introducing the scale of fees set out in column 3 of the table, with effect from 1st April 1978. I am sorry it has not been possible to give longer notice of this intention ". What emerges from that paragraph, my Lords, is that apparently the basis on which the 1975 review of costings was made was either inaccurate or based on wrong criteria supplied by the Home Office to police forces. It looks as though someone has not got his sums right, and we would very much like to know who it is. How is it possible for administration costs to go up so much in the meantime as to justify the present increases? This letter as good as admits that the costing methods used in 1975 were either inaccurate or based on wrong premises.

How do we know they are right this time? Are we to take the Government's word for it? There were wide variations in the costs given last time; they vary considerably all over the country on a sample of police forces, including the Metropolitan Police, which was top of the league by a very long way. I should like to ask the noble Lord opposite whether he will publish the new costs of administration on which these price increases are based. Further, can he give an assurance that the Home Office, or the Government, this time have thought of everything and that no more hidden costs are going to emerge from under the carpet?

What I should like to think, my Lords, is that the Government would submit detailed costings for scrutiny and report by an independent body such as the Price Commission or the Ombudsman, because here is a very firm case where the rights of the citizen are being infringed without proper justification being given. I should like to see detailed figures of those costings. It is either a question of a desire on the part of the Government to discourage the shooter or else it is a possible case of maladministration or of the wrong questions being asked by the Home Office.

I shall now pass to another point. When the holder of a firearm or shotgun certificate receives notice of renewal of his certificate, he is required to take that certificate to the local police station, where he is presumably known to the local constable, sergeant, inspector or whoever is in charge. He is required, from his own personal knowledge of the applicant, to endorse the application form and pass it to higher authority. What administrative cost does that involve? The constable does not have to go out in his car and interview the applicant.

The applicant goes to the police station with his certificate, as he is required to do. He may have to take his firearms or shotguns with him for inspection. He is perfectly prepared to do that, or to receive the police in his home so that they can verify for themselves his holding of firearms or shotguns. But too often, in cases of which I have heard through the British Shooting Sports Council, there has clearly been inefficient use of police manpower for these inquiries, and applicants have been subjected to two or three visits in their home, sometimes by more than one police officer at a time. Is that really necessary? Cannot economies be made?


My Lords, it takes two in Scotland.


My Lords, I thank my noble friend. Another point is that, compared with the cost of an initial grant, the charge for renewal of a certificate is far too high and I cannot see the justification for that. If a person is judged to be a responsible citizen, and a safe person to hold a firearms or shotgun certificate for a period of three years, then it is difficult to see how his bona fides can be queried when a longer period is involved. Unless he is most seriously in breach of the law, he must be adjudged a fit person not only after three years, but after five or six years.

This is a point on which the shooting interests have been pressing the Home Office for quite a long time. I realise that a change would mean amending the Act, but if the Government have an opportunity—assuming that they still have an opportunity—to introduce an amending Bill, I hope that they will also pay attention to this point. We have been assured in the past that it is being considered. We now issue driving licences up to the age of 70, but all kinds of things can happen before that. A man can become half-blind, but he does not have to fill in a further application form or be subjected to a test, provided he stays on the right side of the law, until he is 70. Consider, my Lords, how many people are killed on the roads, and how many are killed by deliberate criminal acts or accidental shootings.

Let me take the case of dog licences. This year, believe it or not, the price of dog licences celebrates its centenary! It has remained unchanged since 1878, at 7s. 6d. or 37½. It will be incorrect for the noble Lord, Lord Harris, to say, as no doubt he will, that these increases are being applied right across the board as a matter of policy, because it is evident that they are not.

There are many thousands of law-abiding citizens, who indulge in the sport of shooting. I am not talking about the grouse shooting fraternity, which may be mentioned by some noble Lords, but about the tens of thousands, and possibly hundreds of thousands, who belong to rifle clubs, clay pigeon clubs and so on, and who shoot at inanimate targets. That is one of the fastest growing participant sports in the country, and it ill becomes the Government to try to discourage it. Apart from that, there is the question of pest destruction by farmers and pigeon clubs, rabbit clubs and so on. A farmer has a right to protect his crops and to invite his friends to come in and help him do so. The ordinary shooter, whatever weapon he uses—shotgun, rifle or pistol—and whether shooting at inanimate or live targets, has a right to enjoy the recreation of his choice, unhindered by bureaucracy and not harassed by continual increases in the cost of his sport.

As regards the Bisley meeting, the numbers are rising every year. Over the last three years, the entries have increased yearly. Each year, we have had a record entry from this country and from overseas. The standing of Great Britain in international competitions, especially within the Commonwealth, is at present very high indeed and I am sure that the Government would not wish it to be anything else. I hope that they will think over what I have said, and consider whether they have not gone far enough this time. I shall look forward with interest, and perhaps a little scepticism, to what the noble Lord opposite has to say. I have no doubt that he will say very much the same as he has said in the past. 1 think that I have the noble Lord's agreement already, but it disappoints me greatly, because I had hoped that we might have just a little crumb of encouragement held out to us this evening.

The shooters of this country have no wish to be a whipping boy for the misdeeds of others. It is for the Government and the courts to chase up the offender, rather than the law-abiding citizen. It is for the courts, especially, to make the fullest use of the penalties which they have at their disposal, which are, generally, woefully under-used. I think it is time that the Government were called to account for these increases and to provide proper details of the costings. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Firearms (Variations of Fees) Order 1978 (S.I., 1978, No. 267) be annulled.—(Lord Swansea.)

7.47 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will be grateful to my noble friend Lord Swansea for his very detailed and well argued explanation of his Motion this evening, and indeed for his persistence in raising this subject once again. For my part, I have to declare a minor interest: first, as the holder of both a firearms certificate and a shotgun certificate; and, secondly, as a member of one of the organisations which has expressed strong objections to these proposed fees. But I am a mere paying supporter and nothing more than that. I have no doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Harris, whom I normally associate with very competent answers on matters which interest me, such as crowd hooliganism and disorders at football games, will give us most, if not all, the answers to our questions, particularly those which have been raised by my noble friend Lord Swansea tonight.

As we have heard from my noble friend there are feelings among law-abiding citizens who possess the relevant certificates, that they are being asked to bear unreasonable costs in respect of keeping their shotguns, which are used for normal and harmless country pursuits, such as shooting rabbits, pigeons and other vermin and clearing farms in the countryside. I think that there are similar feelings of grievance among rifle clubs, as well as among other groups.

The police work involved in checking the suitability of a person to have, or indeed to continue to have, a firearm or shotgun certificate, not to mention the administration, with the legal points and the extraordinary items which can be added to the cost of firearms control, has been a little exaggerated in some of the details that we were given in answers after the last debate.

At the end of his remarks or at a later date I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, could give us an indication of the numbers of firearm and shotgun certificates which are at present held in England and Wales and in Scotland. I believe that these are the relevant administrative divisions. May I also ask the noble Lord whether there is evidence of a falling off in the numbers of holders of these relevant certificates, since this is one of the fears expressed by those who are concerned about paying these increased fees.

In the course of a debate which was held in your Lordships' House in December 1976, the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, mentioned during his remarks Section 5 of the Public Expenditure and Receipts Act 1968. He mentioned that the orders must obtain, and then the noble Lord quoted from the Act: … a net return corresponding more nearly with the cost of the matters for which [those fees] are payable". I wonder whether the noble Lord will be able to let the House have the latest available details which would indicate that the fees are being used according to the strict parameters of Section 5 of the 1968 Act.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, might be able to help us with a comment that he made later on during his remarks in that same debate in December 1976. He said: We do not expect revenue to balance expenditure until 1977-78 "— I think that is the year which has just ended— and that will happen only if there has been no increase in costs during the intervening period ".— [Official Report, 2/12/76; col. 506.] I think that there the noble Lord is referring to revenue balancing expenditure.

I appreciate, and I am sure that the House and my noble friends also will appreciate, that these remarks were made by the noble Lord 17 months ago. It was the last major opportunity that we had to debate these fees. However, there are widespread fears in all parts of the House, and I believe in the country at large, that costs have not risen so much as the proposed increase in fees. The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, will allay some of those fears if he can give us the very fullest explanation possible of the factors which affect fee increases of this size. Is such a large amount really required to carry out a check upon the continuing suitability of somebody to hold a certificate, particularly in view of the fairly minor administration which is involved, as was pointed out by my noble friend Lord Swansea, when it conies to renewing a shotgun certificate, since the holder of a certificate will go to the police station and carry out most of the leg work and transport work involved? We should be grateful for any further details that can be supplied by the noble Lord.

In the course of his remarks during the debate in December 1976 my noble friend Lord Swansea mentioned the administrative costs of firearm and shotgun control. Certainly the profit motive seemed to me to be obvious, but I wonder whether the noble Lord can disabuse me regarding this attitude towards what I call profit. He might be able to tell us what extra costs or factors have been involved in checking certificates since 1976 and how they would affect the figures which are included in the orders today.

The House will be aware that the sharp increase in fees has given widespread cause for concern in country areas, certainly among those who legitimately use shotguns or firearms, be they rifle clubs or pistol owners. This concern will be heightened unless the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, can give my noble friend Lord Swansea and, indeed, the House the answers we are seeking tonight.

7.55 p.m.


My Lords, I did not expect to find that there would be a number of points which I could make in addition to those which have already been made by my noble friends. However, in referring to the few points which I wish to make I cannot resist a chuckle at the fact that my noble friend Lord Swansea drew attention to the point that one of the dates involved in laying these orders was 1st April. As a devoted follower of field sports, I am, with many others, as my noble friend Lord Lyell has pointed out, thoroughly unhappy about these orders. They can only serve to make it more expensive and therefore more difficult to enjoy shooting, whether in field sports or in competitive skeet such as my noble friend Lord Swansea referred to in his speech.

Apart from the question of expense about which we hope to hear further from the noble Lord the Minister, the administration of these swingeing impositions can only take up more of the time of the police—time which, in my opinion, could better be spent, as they, the police, would prefer, in countering crime. All of the evidence in Colin Greenwood's article in the Autumn number of the Wagbi Quarterly, the wildfowlers' magazine, goes to show that there is little or no link between weapons used for sport and the upsurge in the number of armed robberies.

It looks to me as though the declared intention of the Socialist movement to outlaw field sports is the real motive behind these orders. We have just had a reminder of that in the recent decision of the Home Policy Committee of the Labour Party, under the chairmanship of Mr. Wedgwood Benn. They leaked to the media on "The News at Ten" that they propose to ask the National Executive of the Labour Party to include a pledge to abolish all field sports in their next Election Manifesto. This is just another example of attempts by the Government to divide the nation by harrying the law-abiding. Would not Parliament's time be better spent upon harrying the criminal?

Something that was said by my noble friend Lord Swansea makes me remind your Lordships that a good many years ago—I believe it was in 1973—it was contended that there should be a standing independent advisory committee on firearm control. Nothing has happened about that suggestion. Perhaps my noble friend Lord Cottesloe will recall the problem which was raised at that time.

My noble friend Lord Swansea made a strong appeal for some sort of independent body which would be able to deal with these matters in a sensible way. 1 should like to repeat what I have said before in your Lordships' House: that any person possessing a sawn-off shotgun is, ipso facto, a criminal and should be treated as such. Nobody in his senses will saw the barrel off a good sporting shot gun. Quite apart from that, what does possession of such a weapon mean? It means that it is to be used for shooting human beings. We should be going after people like that and leave these already onerous fees as they are. If I may turn to clay pigeon shooting, the editor of a magazine published by the Sports Council which I receive regularly, whom I have chided for the absence of coverage of shooting in a magazine that is devoted to sport and recreation, gives me to understand that he will at least have an article on the subject of skeet shooting in the next issue.

I wonder whether the Sports Council have been consulted by the Home Office and asked for their views on these orders. My noble friend Lord Swansea mentioned the grouse shooting community. I imagine that he meant the game shooting community in general, for in addition to the people who shoot without shooting game my noble friend mentioned people involved in agriculture, as did my noble friend Lord Lyell. However, many more ancillary jobs are connected with the question of shooting, which makes an important contribution to the employment of skilled personnel, from the keeper and the ghillie down to the gunmaker and the gun fitter. I hope that my noble friend will not withdraw his Motion so that at least those of us who support him can cry, "Content". I for one shall not seek to divide the House, but if the House chooses to divide, I shall go into the Lobby with my noble friend Lord Swansea.

8.1 p.m.


My Lords, in rising to support the Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Swansea, I suppose I must declare an interest—an interest as having all my life practised and enjoyed target shooting with a rifle at Bisley and elsewhere, and in pursuit of that interest being concerned actively as a vice-president (or in some other office) of the National Rifle Association, and the National Sporting Rifle Association; being concerned with the pastime of probably more than a quarter of a million marksmen who are members of those associations and their affiliated clubs. An interest also from a lifelong enjoyment of the sport of shooting, of shooting both game and vermin with a shotgun; and I gather that there are certainly more than three quarters of a million shotguns in use innocently and legally by members of the public in this country. The numbers arc very considerable.

Also I have to declare a particular interest as the holder of a firearms dealer's licence—not indeed, as I may assure your Lordships, that I do in fact deal in firearms. I do not so deal, but having inherited a large number of rifles used in experiments concerned with the development of the military rifle since 1860, most of them firearms now obsolete or obsolescent, it was represented to me by the police that it would save both them and me a lot of time and trouble if I were to keep a standing register that they could check from time to time, rather than that I should make out for them a new list every time I wished to renew an ordinary firearms certificate.

Having declared my interest—a wholly innocent one—let me turn to the orders themselves. As has been said, there are two points to be considered: first, there is the way in which they have been brought forward and promulgated without any adequate notification to the quite small and well known numbers of national bodies and associations concerned—the National Rifle Association, the National Small Bore Rifle Association, the Wild-fowlers Association of Great Britain and Ireland, the Clay Pigeon Shooting Association. There are one or two others, but very few. It is quite astounding, for example, and I find it quite shocking, that the first intimation that the Secretary of the National Rifle Association received of these orders was when he read a short paragraph in the Financial Times, stating that the orders had been made. Quite apart from the Shooting Sports Council, who were notified at a very late date so that there was no time, before the orders were laid, for circulation even to the members of that Council. let alone to their associated bodies, surely the National Associations representing shooting should be given early notice of such orders affecting their interests and the interests of their members, as a matter of course and as a matter of common courtesy.

When we discussed in this House the last orders made some 16 months ago, we were told that the policy was simply that the fees should broadly cover the costs of administering the licences and that this was a general policy covering all licensing of the kind "right across the board". I think that was the phrase used. It is certainly not a universal policy because, as my noble friend Lord Swansea has pointed out, the licence fee for dogs, derisory as it is, has not been altered for 100 years. But leaving that aside and accepting that in total fees should be broadly commensurate with costs, there is a widespread and undoubted belief, rightly or wrongly, among those who pay these fees for firearm and shotgun licences, that the fees are deliberately subjected to swingeing increases in order to reduce the numbers of lawfully held firearms and that the police believe, against all the evidence, that that would reduce the numbers illegally held and used for criminal purposes. Rightly or wrongly, this is widely believed, and if it is not the case, then it is important that there should be opportunity for discussion to reassure those whose sport is subjected to this burden.

There was, for instance, a reasonable suggestion embodied in a Bill brought forward by Mr. Marcus Kimball in another place that licences should cover an extended period. I believe that was never adequately discussed. There may well be other suggestions that could be put forward that might lead to a reduction in the police costs. For instance, there are questions that should be discussed of arrangements for certified members of the National Associations and their affiliated clubs being able to obtain licences more easily than the public at large, which might save a great deal of police time and trouble and expense. The variations in costs between the metropolitan area and the rural districts appear on the face of them to he excessively wide, even taking into account the higher incidence of crime in the metropolis. Quite certainly, the fee for replacing a firearms certificate that has been mislaid or destroyed, of £13—simply for replacing a piece of paper—all the particulars of which the police already have, is manifestly excessive, as is the fee for a straightforward renewal of the certificate held by a respectable citizen.

I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, may be able to assure us that there will be an opportunity for suggestions to be put forward and discussed, and that the Home Office will put their cards on the table and dispel the widespread concern by showing just how these figures are arrived at, something they have never yet attempted to do. Otherwise they are fostering the belief among shooting men and women, not only that the fees which they have to pay are unnecessarily high but also that they are being discriminated against quite improperly and unfairly.

8.8 p.m.


My Lords, I think that I should first declare a non-interest. The last time I held a firearm was during my National Service and I never wanted to hold one again, but it seems to me that this debate has developed into an argument that this Government want to harry and chase the shooting man out of existence. I do not think that is the case at all, and I am surprised that in a debate of this sort, which seems to me to be on quite a reasonable level, even Mr. Wedgwood Benn can get an honourable mention as being somebody who wants to abolish shooting men. I am not here as a member of the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party and I do not have to defend the decisions of the Home Policy Committee, but, just to clarify that point, I think that the field sports that the Labour Party Home Policy Committee have been concerned about are fox hunting and hare coursing, and not the question of clay pigeon shooting or live pigeon shooting or rabbit shooting or that sort of field sport.

It seems to me that the argument has developed, not into a question of how much the increase should be—and we have had talk of "swingeing increases" —but whether people should be licensed at all. I did not quite understand the reasoning of the noble Lord, Lord Swansea, whether it was against the increase in licence fees or whether it was against licensing at all or any form of control. It seems to me that with the increases that we all face in an inflationary period from which we hope we are now recovering, they are not unreasonable. After all, if we are talking about licensing, that is a form of control.

My noble friend Lord Harris is no doubt quite able to answer for himself, but I think that if these increases were not justified he would not be presenting them before the House in this order, purely on the basis that he gets more fuss pro rata on increases in fees for shotguns and firearms than probably with any other order that he lays before this House. The costs we are talking about are now £13 for a firearm and £5 for a shotgun. So, for a shotgun, you are talking about round about one halfpenny per day over a period of three years. For a firearm, you are talking about something like 1.18 pence. That is all you are talking about, and it seems to me that the administrative costs are perfectly justified.


My Lords, if the noble Lord will allow me, he has referred to the cost of renewal of a firearm certificate and a shotgun certificate, one of which is 2½ times greater than the other. Is he suggesting that it costs 2½ times as much police time and clerks' time in a police-station to renew a firearm certificate as it does to renew a shotgun certificate?


No, my Lords, but surely the noble Lord will agree that these increases are pro rata on the original costs that we are talking about. It does seem to me that these increases are not swingeing increases but are quite reasonable. 1 am sure that my noble friend will be able to justify them, and of course it is up to noble Lords who have prayed against this order to take their own decision.


My Lords, the noble Lord said that somebody had suggested that there should not be licensing. I have heard nobody say that. Certainly there should be licensing and certainly there should be firearms and shotgun certificates.


My Lords, I think the noble Lord would agree that the general drift in the argument in favour of those possessing firearms did at one stage seem to be that there should be no licensing and that the only thing one should be doing is chasing the offenders. What we are saying is that there should be licensing and control, and these charges are completely in line with that.


My Lords, for the years 1976 to 1978 the average increase has been 162 per cent. for firearm certificates and shotgun certifictaes. If the noble Lord talks as though there has been hardly any increase I think he is off the line.


My Lords, many noble Lords will be grateful to my noble friend Lord Swansea for introducing this prayer. I am at a complete loss to understand how police administration costs can be so high as to require these charges. I am wondering whether there is some inefficiency or whether the figures are accurate. My own firearms certificate has a considerable number of weapons upon it. How a cost of £13 can be justified to renew it passes my comprehension. If, on the other hand, I want some increase in the amount of ammunition allowed on the certificate, or a new weapon, it is even more difficult to understand how the cost can amount to £13.

Can it be that there is big expenditure on investigating doubtful cases and that this is being charged against the more reasonable applicants? I suggest that possibly inadequate guidelines are given to chief constables and that as a result there is considerable variation as to granting of certificates; some chiefs give the certificates quite easily and with others it is quite difficult to get one. Of course, chief constables delegate many of their powers in this respect, and the individual applying may well have to be subjected to a report given by a constable who is very ignorant of firearm matters. There will then be time-consuming argument and delay resulting in extra expense.

Again, there have been cases where there have been criminal proceedings and weapons have been confiscated by the court but the individuals have been allowed to keep their certificates. Courts should be given permission to confiscate certifi cates. Indeed, it has been known for convicted persons, following the confiscation of their weapons, to go behind the scenes after the hearing and buy back the weapons just removed from them, not always at full market price. Indeed, the disposal of confiscated weapons is a matter requiring far more attention than increases in these charges.

Then there is the case of visiting sportsmen from overseas. The noble Lord who has just spoken averaged out the cost, but such people may come only for a week and they have to pay £16 to allow them to use a rifle in this country for a week.


My Lords, I should have thought that anybody who comes here for shooting could well afford that. If they are coming here for a week's shooting, that does not seem to me an inordinate charge.


My Lords, they may be coming to fire at a range; it may not be sporting shooting, which the noble Lord seems to have his mind entirely directed against. Why should there be these penalties on people coming over? They do not have them in other countries. If you go to Sweden, which, after all, is perhaps even more Left than some of the noble Lords opposite—


Impossible, my Lords.


—the customs there accept your weapon as you come in, and ask, "When are you taking it out?". You have it for a week or whatever it is, and I imagine there is some charge, but it is quite a simple procedure; whereas in this country you have to apply weeks or months before, and increased expenditure is run up. I really do consider that there is something which very badly needs looking at here.


My Lords, I am sorry I did not put my name down to speak, but I should like to try to correct an impression that the noble Lord on my left may have given when he said that the increases had not been all that swingeing. I have just done a little sum, the example being someone—and I declare an interest here because it happens to be me—who has both a shotgun certificate and a firearms certificate which were granted in June 1975. The cost of that was £3.50. In June this year, I shall have to go to my local police station and pay £18. That is a 514 per cent. increase in three years. I think noble Lords will agree that that is a fairly swingeing increase, even if there is now a new basis for working out these costs more accurately. Here, I should like to support the noble Lord, Lord Swansea, and many of the other noble Lords who have spoken in calling for greater detail from the Government as to just how these costs are arrived at, because I find them very hard to believe.

8.18 p.m.


My Lords, I fully understand the concern of the shooting community over the increases introduced by these orders, which conic only 18 months after the substantial increases which came into effect in October 1976. I think it is perfectly natural that we should be asked why we have had to increase these fees. The explanation is a very straightforward one, and it is a dilemma which I am bound to say not one of those who have spoken has really faced up to. It has indeed been the policy of successive Governments, including the Government which noble Lords opposite supported between 1970 and 1974, that fees such as those for certificates and registration under the Firearms Act should be set at the level required to cover costs of administration. That is a bipartisan policy; there has been no doubt about it. It was a policy of the Conservative Government and it is a policy of the Labour Government.


My Lords—


No, with great respect, I will gladly give way in a few moments. I have listened with close attention to the speeches made and I think it not unreasonable that I should now be able to answer them. I will gladly give way at a later stage, as I always do.

Where controls are required in the public interest, the cost can, of course, be recoverable in only one of two ways. It has either got to be done by the Revenue from specific fees or by higher rates of taxes. That is the only choice—one way or the other. Before 1968 it certainly was common—I concede this immediately—for there only to be a nominal fee for licences and certificates relating to activities controlled in the public interest. The fee for the issue of a firearm certificate, just to take one example, was only five shillings. The main burden of the cost of administration fell, as it did in many other fields of activity, on the ratepayer and taxpayer.

That was the situation before 1968. But in 1968 Parliament decided that, where people were engaged in an activity which needed to be regulated in the public interest, they should be required to pay the full economic cost of issuing or renewing their licences or certificates. The decision was given expression—the noble Lord, Lord Lyell referred to this—in Section 5 of the Public Expenditure and Receipts Act 1968, and it has since remained not only unchanged but largely unchallenged, except, if I may say so, whenever one increases firearm fees.

This policy does not, of course, apply only to firearms; nor does it apply only to activities with which the Home Secretary is concerned. It applies right across the board, from lotteries and amusements to major petroleum installations. The policy applies to matters as diverse as licences for the removal of human remains and certificates of competence for ships' radio operators. There is no question of discriminating against the shooting community or, to quote the noble Lord, Lord Swansea, of clobbering the shooter.

Whenever the firearms fees are raised, we hear the cry that the shooter is being victimised, that the increased fees are part of a monstrous Home Office plot, or indeed a plot by Mr. Wedgwood Benn, I understand, this evening, to deprive shooters of their weapons. That is pretty far-fetched stuff. I do hope that some noble Lords who have spoken will speak in the future on this matter with rather more restrained language than they have employed this evening.

I come to the dog-licence question. That is a fair point. It was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Swansea, and by the noble Lord, Lord Cottesloe, who has just spoken. The position of dog licences is indeed a rather anomalous arrangement, as I concede immediately. It has indeed operated for, I think, about 100 years at its present level. Of course, dog licences are a totally different matter from what we are discussing at the moment. I shall give the reason why. They were conceived as an entirely revenue-raising method for Governments. That is why dog licences were instituted. In fact, to answer the point, the cost of administering the scheme is still covered by the amount of money that is received. That happens to be a position which I checked only today. It remains true that, notwithstanding the fact that these fees have not been increased for such a very substantial period of time, the cost of administering the dog licences scheme is still covered by the revenue which is raised by it—which, if I may say so, is a total answer to the point made. I do not believe that a single noble Lord can give another example, or any example indeed—none has been given, except this particular point—whereby there are any exceptions to the policy that I have indicated, which has been the approach of both Conservative and Labour Governments.

The fees for firearm and shotgun certificates are set at the level required to recover the costs of administering the certification procedures—no more. In this respect the shooter is treated no differently from any other licence-holder whose activities are regulated in the public interest. Let me explain briefly how the present fees came to be fixed. They are based on a review of the costs, during the 12 months ending 31st March 1977, of dealing with successful applications for firearm and shotgun certificates and for registration as a firearms dealer. In calculating the costs, police forces were specifically asked to exclude the costs of dealing with unsuccessful applications, attending court in connection with appeals and other enforcement aspects of the firearms controls. These were all excluded from these calculations. The estimates therefore reflect only the costs to the police of granting and renewing certificates and registrations.

Because of the criticisms of the costing methods used in the 1975 review, which were repeated here today—and this particular calculation formed the basis of the fees which were introduced in October 1976—we went to considerable trouble to prepare far more detailed guidelines for the forces taking part in the 1977 exercise. Before the survey commenced, Home Office officials discussed with the police the best method of ensuring that all participating forces used broadly comparable costing methods. I am satisfied that, as a result, the returns submitted in response to the 1977 survey are as accurate an assessment as we can get of the properly attributable police costs. These, I should add, do not cover only police time. They include an appropriate proportion of the costs of office accommodation, common services, items such as stationery, printing and postage and, where appropriate, computer time.

A number of forces, as the noble Lords will be aware, have computerised their firearms records. In my view, it would be quite wrong not to take into account an appropriate share of the overheads involved. This principle is applied in assessing the administrative costs of other kinds of licences and certificates. In other words, similar methods are used in calculating any other charges of a kind to which I have referred in my speech this evening.

The review that I have just described showed that the fees fixed in 1976 fell a long way short of recovering the costs of administering the firearms certification and registration procedures. Allowing for an inflation rate of 10 per cent. in 1977-78, the expected revenue from fees was some £850,000 less than the estimated costs of administration. Clearly this could not be allowed to continue. There was no alternative in this situation to increasing the firearms fees, unless they were to be subsidised by taxpayers at large, and the Government have no intention whatever of allowing this.

A number of noble Lords asked how these figures were calculated. The answer is that they were calculated by the police. I was not absolutely clear, in the light of some of the speeches made, whether it was being suggested seriously that the police were in some way rigging these figures. There was, I regret to say, an implication in one or two speeches that that was so. I very much regret it, if that is the suggestion, because I do not believe it is a charge which should be made against chief officers of police, who are responsible for calculating these fees. I must say that was a very clear indication.

Several noble Lords

My Lords—


Let me finish this point. I shall then give way. There was a clear implication in at least two speeches that were made earlier by noble Lords.


I wonder whether the noble Lord could possibly be a little more particular with his fire. That is a particularly apposite comment this evening. Certainly, in the course of my remarks, and of at least two other remarks, at no time did we suggest that there was any rigging of figures. I asked the noble Lord a plethora of questions. At no time did anybody say that there was rigging. Nor do I think it reasonable to suggest that the tone of the debate was that the police were involved.


I am much obliged to the noble Lord. If he will study Hansard tomorrow, I shall be surprised, when he reads some of the other speeches, if he takes that same view. I made no such suggestion. The noble Lord made that suggestion. If he reads Hansard, he will find that implication clearly in at least two speeches.


I think the noble Lord may possibly be referring to some of my remarks. But I did ask the noble Lord how he could possibly justify the cost of fl 3 when adding a weapon to my certificate. That is just not feasible. It would not cost £13.


The noble Lord is a very helpful ally. He has justified precisely the point that I was endeavouring to make. The point is that these figures were calculated by the police on the basis which, as a result of criticisms made in the past, has been most carefully refined. I do not believe that there can be any truth whatever in the suggestion that the police force deliberately rigged this matter in the way that has been suggested this evening.

A number of questions were raised. The noble Lord, Lord Lyell, raised a question about the situation of the Metropolitan Police Force area. It was raised by a number of those who spoke. I take the point completely that there is a problem here, in that costs in the Metropolitan Police Force area are undoubtedly a great deal higher than they are in any other part of the country. That is certainly true, but of course the reason for that is a simple one, that the Commissioner of Police takes the view that it is necessary to devote far more resources to firearms control in London than is the situation in any other part of the country.

The reason for that is a very simple one and it is this. Of the 1,068 robberies in 1976 which involved the use of firearms no fewer than 767 were committed in London. That is why the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police takes the view that it is necessary to devote far more time and resources to this task. After all, he has the responsibility for ensuring law and order in this city.


My Lords, were these 760-odd crimes in London which involved firearms committed by people who had firearm certificates? If they were not, that does not help the Minister's argument. The people who have firearm certificates are law abiding citizens.


We have gone over this ground on a large number of previous occasions and I regret to say it goes rather outside the confines of this debate. The Commissioner takes the view that it is necessary to have a particularly rigorous system for ensuring proper control of firearms in the Metropolitan Police district. I think an overwhelming majority of people in this country would agree that that is a proper and responsible attitude for the Commissioner of Police to take, and I would find it very surprising if many actively disagreed with it.

We have gone over this ground tonight in some detail and I have made the Government's position absolutely clear, that firearms and shotgun licence holders are being treated in the same way as anybody else. There is no way in which it would be possible to take a different decision in terms of the financial basis for the licensing arrangements for shotgun and firearm licence holders. How could such an exception be justified? Why should shooters alone be excluded from this policy? Why should they and nobody else be subsidised by taxpayers? With great respect, not one noble Lord who has spoken in this debate has answered or even thought to answer that question. I am perfectly well aware of the fact that many people who pay for licences in this way do not like it and their motives and attitude are perfectly understandable when, as a consequence of inflation, it is necessary to increase the cost.

I would add this point. A number of points have been made by one or two noble Lords about police practices and they have asked whether the police do not on some occasions go into this matter more thoroughly than they should—for example, two policemen arriving when one might do the job. I have pointed out already to representatives of shooting organisations that there is a way in which complaints of this sort can be ventilated. If in fact allegations of this sort are going to be made there is a well devised system for complaints against the police. They are constantly made, but unfortunately those making them do not often come forward and give detailed evidence. If they wish to do so I suggest that they make it to the local chief officer of police, who I am sure will be glad to carry out an investigation as to whether there is any justice in the complaint.


My Lords, are not those complaints a reflection on the complexity of the rules for procuring licences, which in fact contribute to the cost which noble Lords consider unjustified? If these rules are not amended or looked at more carefully it will mean that this is going to be only a rich man's sport. Noble Lords here, I am sure, can afford it, but the noble Lord opposite probably knows many people who would not be able to afford this.


My Lords, I can understand the point which the noble Lord is making but 1 think it goes rather wider than the terms of the order we are discussing today. Obviously I have strayed beyond it myself because I have been dealing with a number of points raised by noble Lords. The issue which the noble Lord has raised now would require amendment to the legislation itself and that is not an issue which is before us today. Because of the widespread interest in this House, I have gone over the ground in some detail, but I repeat: shooters are not being treated any differently from any other section of the community. I must tell the House bluntly that in the event of this order being negatived tonight the police who carry out the day-to-day responsibility for organising firearms control would face a situation tomorrow morning where they would be plunged into a degree of administrative chaos of the greatest complexity and seriousness. I would put it to the House that at a time when the police are carrying out responsibilities on behalf of the entire community, on an occasion such as this it would not be right to put them in that situation.


My Lords, having listened to the whole of the debate, and certainly not having heard any accusations against the police, may I ask whether it is not a contradiction about the taxpayer paying for the licences? This came out from what the noble Lord said about the higher cost incurred by the police in London where they had to be so very careful. Is it not the legitimate applicant who is having to pay for the applicants who have to be turned down? Is there not there a discrimination against the legitimate applicant?


My Lords, I do not think so. I think the situation as I have described it is more favourable to the shooter than would be the position if the present situation were changed. I repeat that I think I have put the argument as fairly as I can. I am well aware of the anxieties which have been expressed today. I have met representatives of the shooting interests on a number of occasions. I find those meetings agreeable. I think noble Lords may find it rather surprising in the light of some of the speeches that have been made, but when we have met together Mr. Wegdwood Benn's name, so far as I can recall, has not been raised and some of these darker fears have not been expressed. Nevertheless, if representatives of the shooting interests would like to meet me in the future to discuss these wider questions, I of course would be very glad to meet them.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, he mentioned that there were problems in the Metropolitan area and I think he justified his case in detail, but would he also accept that the vast proportion of shotgun and firearms certificates are held outside the Metropolitan area? Indeed, we had one very short intervention from my noble friend Lord Tryon. I think the noble Lord, Lord Harris, and indeed the House would agree that a quintupling of charges in three years would require a little more detailed comment. Possibly it could not be done tonight, but if the noble Lord, Lord Harris, could give us some indication as to where we, or any interested organisation, could find these details it might help.


My Lords, if I may respond to this particular point for the third and last time since I concluded my speech a few minutes ago, I will gladly see what additional information I can give the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, and write to him. He will appreciate that the point which I was dealing with dealt with the most difficult question of all from my point of view, and that is the police force which has the highest costs so far as its certificate registration procedures are concerned. All other police forces have significantly lower costs. I think that deals with the point, but I will gladly write to the noble Lord and give him any further information I can.


My Lords, first I wish to thank all noble Lords on both sides of the House who have taken part in this short, but very interesting debate. I should like to assure the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, at once that it was never in my mind to accuse any police force of deliberately cooking the books and rigging the figures. I hope that when he reads the report of this debate tomorrow he will not read into my speech anything of that nature. Indeed, if he finds anything suggesting that, I shall gladly buy him a drink!

The noble Lord said that although the fees for licences of various sorts were being increased right across the board, the shooters were the only people who had so far objected. Are we not entitled to object? I am tempted to quote from The Merchant of Venice, but I shall not take the time of the House to do so now. I do not see why we should accept exhorbitant fees of this sort lying down, unless the Government can justify the figures. If they are prepared to publish the figures and give details of how they have arrived at the costings, then we may be prepared to accept them as fair and reasonable, but not until then.

The noble Lord, Lord Murray of Gravesend, made a short intervention much on the lines which I had expected in view of his previous interventions on this subject. He declared what he described as a non-interest and it was easy to see why. He is not interested in shooting of any shape or kind. The noble Lord was more interested in putting his views on blood sports to which he is entitled. I respect his views on that subject, but they are not really relevant to the present debate. I should like to invite him to look tomorrow not only at the report of this debate but also at the reports of other debates in which I have taken part over the years, some before he came to this House. If he can find anything that I have said at any time which indicates that I should like to see the total abolition of all forms of firearms control, I shall buy him a drink too!

I recognise that there must he controls of some sort, but they must be sensible and workable and must not bear too hardly on the law-abiding citizen. Stop clobbering the shooter and clobber the villain instead. If the Government do that they will have my wholehearted support.

I shall not detain your Lordships any longer. I should like to express my thanks to all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. I should like to console the noble Lord, Lord Harris, by saying one kind thing about the police before I sit down. I received a stock letter from my local police force in Wales along with the notification that my firearms certificate was due for renewal. That letter bore the name of the chief constable and it was couched in very fair and reasonable terms--terms that were much better than any other letter that I have seen from any chief constable. The letter inquired courteously whether the recipient would not consider reviewing his need for the firearms that he held and invited him—if he had any firearm that he no longer needed--to dispose of it. He was further informed of his rights as regards the manner in which he could dispose of it. That letter should serve as a model to other chief constables throughout the country and I wish that there were many more like that chief constable around.

I was very tempted when I put down this Motion to ask for your Lordships' opinion on these orders. However, I think that I had better not do so, although that is much against my inclinations. I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for his reply, which I shall study carefully. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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