HL Deb 23 March 1990 vol 517 cc540-53

1.36 p.m.

Lord Swansea rose to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the order [S.I. 1990 No. 290] be annulled.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I should declare an interest as the current chairman of the British Shooting Sports Council which represents the views of all national shooting organisations throughout the country.

The Home Office announcement of the new scale of fees for firearm and shotgun certificates came as a considerable surprise and has caused great anger and concern among the legitimate shooters all over the country. Not for the first time, they have an inescapable feeling that they are the victim of the Home Office's favourite occupation of shooter-bashing. There has been a complete lack of consultation with the shooting interests and the Firearms Consultative Committee.

The Association of Chief Police Officers is in the course of carrying out an inquiry into these fees. So also is another body; namely, Coopers and Lybrand. It is sponsored by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, one of the members of the British Shooting Sports Council.

Your Lordships will remember that in 1986 a working group was set up by the BSSC and the Home Office to consider the whole question of firearms fees. The work went well until the disaster of Hungerford. It put a stop to the work of that group, which has not met since then. However, we were given the impression that its functions would be taken over by the new Firearms Consultative Committee. So one would have expected that that committee would be consulted before any change in the fees structure was contemplated. Perhaps my noble friend will tell the House what part that Firearms Consultative Committee has played. The Government were forced, against their wishes, to accept that committee during the Bill's passage through another place. They took an unconscionable time to decide on its membership. Ten per cent. of the planned life of that committee had expired before the composition of the committee was decided and announced. I am well satisfied with the representation of shooting interests on the committee. However, to what extent has it been consulted on what I should have thought would be an ideal subject for discussion? I should like to know why it was not included in the consultation.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Government, having reluctantly agreed to the setting up of a Firearms Consultative Committee, are determined to treat it just as a talking shop and are not prepared to use it for the purpose for which it was intended. There is a growing feeling in shooting circles that they need more concrete evidence of the Government's good faith and their willingness to bring shooting interests into consultation.

I pass to the role of the police. Your Lordships will remember that about three years ago a survey was carried out among a sample of police forces. The forces produced an analysis of their costs in administering the provisions of the Firearms Act 1968. They produced a tremendously wide variety of answers. The Metropolitan Police were way ahead of the rest of the field by several lengths. In any case, the feeling is that these costs were assessed on a very doubtful basis. There is evidence of a considerable misuse or inefficient use of police time and manpower. The Government's policy is to recover the full administrative costs in the fees for the firearms and shotgun certificates. It was referred to in a letter from my noble friend on the Front bench to the honourable Member for Colne Valley; it is important to bear in mind that the new controls were introduced as a public safety measure".

If any member of the public wishes to consult the police on the security aspect, whether or not he is a firearms owner, the police will readily send their crime prevention officer to survey the house and make recommendations. For this service they make no charge whatever.

The police are constantly putting road patrol vehicles on motorways and other main roads and such cost is not passed on to the motorist either through driving licence fees or car registration fees. It is all part of the police service to the public. The crime prevention element of these police costs, whether in home security, motoring or administering the Firearms Act, is an element of normal police costs and should not be taken into consideration and included in the fees.

When the Firearms (Amendment) Act was introduced, we were told by the Home Secretary at that time that he foresaw an increase of about 80 in police staff across the country to administer the provisions of the new Act. There is every indication now that that figure will be greatly exceeded. My latest information is that there are 52 new posts established in only 10 police forces. If we therefore extrapolate that figure— which could be a slightly risky business— we arrive at a total of about 250 across the country. That seems either to indicate a woeful miscalculation, a guess which is very far from inspired, or even a deliberate attempt to mislead Parliament and the public.

Who will have to foot the bill for these extra police staff: It is of course the long-suffering shooter who has put up with so much already. The shooting public are wholly behind the Government in their efforts to reduce armed crime by all reasonable means. But they are becoming increasingly fed up and sick and tired of being made whipping boys for the criminal, because if the Government cannot catch the criminal they will turn to the nearest person— the innocent. legitimate shooter. There is a growing feeling that the Government's intention is to squeeze shooting sports out of existence altogether. I should like to be reassured by my noble friend that that is not their intention.

The latest level of increase in the fees is much greater than the cumulative rate of the retail prices index since 1986. Is it the serious intention of the Government to price all shooting sports out of the market? It is a sport for all ages and both sexes. Even at my present age I am still an active shooter, although without the degree of success that I used to enjoy. Nevertheless I still enjoy the sport. Your Lordships may know that there is an annual match at Bisley between this House and another place. I am pleased to say that we have won the last three matches. We hope to win this year's match and subsequent matches. However, future matches depend a great deal on the Government's attitude towards firearms control.

The United Kingdom is pre-eminent in shooting sports throughout the world. An English shooter has won a gold medal in two successive Olympic Games. There has been an outstanding performance by shooters from the United Kingdom in the recent Commonwealth Games. This year the National Rifle Association celebrates its centenary at Bisley. It is not the centenary of its foundation, which took place in 1860, but of its move to Bisley in 1890. This year we are expecting an extra large meeting, with many competitors from overseas.

Clubs are the mainstay of any national association in any activity. They depend on the regular intake of young shooters. But the Home Secretary's latest regulations on rifle clubs are totally lacking in logic and are based mostly on mistaken premises. There is a grave danger that the recruitment of young shooters to the sport will be stifled altogether. That is another question that is outside the present debate. I hope that my noble friend will tell your Lordships exactly why the Government have chosen the present moment to pre-empt all other discussions and to introduce this order now without any form of consultation with shooting interests.

I understand that the present order is only the first in a two-stage process. Perhaps my noble friend can enlighten us on when we may expect the next step and what form it will take. The long-suffering shooting public is rapidly running out of patience. After their experiences of the past few months and yesterday, the Government surely need all the friends that they can get. I should like my noble friend to tell the House that the Government will withdraw the order. I beg to move the Motion standing in my name.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the order [S.I. 1990 No. 290] be annulled.— (Lord Swansea.)

1.50 p.m.

Lord Kimball

My Lords, some of your Lordships may have a room in your house where you hang old school photographs. I am conscious of the fact that I have a shooting eight photograph in which the captain is none other than my noble friend Lord Swansea. Therefore it hurts me a great deal to have to repudiate in this House so much of what he said, particularly about the Firearms Consultative Committee.

I speak today in my capacity as chairman of the Home Office Firearms Consultative Committee. I must tell my noble friend Lord Swansea that we have on our agenda the whole question of fees and the certification process. At our first meeting we were advised that of course the Government must recoup the costs of the police work. I remind him that the order deals only with the recoupment of police costs at this stage. In no way does it reflect the costs which may be added by the implementation of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988.

Your Lordships will know that the Firearms Consultative Committee was established under Section 22 of the Firearms (Amendment) Act. That was brought into effect, together with a number of other provisions in the Act, on 1st February last year by means of a commencement order. A second commencement order, laid before Parliament in May 1989, brought into effect, among other things, new controls on smooth-bore guns.

On 31st January this year the transitional arrangements provided under the second commencement order came to a close. I sincerely hope that all those who held, by virtue of a shotgun certificate prior to 1st July 1989, a large magazine smooth-bore gun now raised to Section I control know about or have been told about the end of the transitional period.

During the eight-months transitional period it was open to such certificate holders either to apply for a firearms certificate for their weapon or have it adapted. I do not wish to bandy figures about but we know the approximate number of large smooth-bore pump-action shotguns that have been sold. We know from the trade the number that have been adapted. We do not know the number that have been transferred to Part I firearms certificates, but there is a gap. I am certain that there are many people in the gap who are committing an offence without knowing that. However, the time has now come to publicise the fact, to remind them that they are in default and that they must take action or there will be serious trouble.

I am conscious that the Firearms Consultative Committee's wide-ranging terms of reference make it an important forum for the discussion of firearms matters. Its main functions are to advise the Home Secretary of the implementation of and any improvements to the workings of the Acts of 1968 and 1988 and, if necessary, to make proposals for amending those Acts. As my noble friend Lord Swansea has reminded the House, we have recently provided the Home Secretary with advice on his proposals for the memberships of approved rifle and pistol clubs.

I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if I take this opportunity to correct a mistake that I made in a radio interview. I said that recent tragedies, excluding the one in Glasgow, were committed by members who held a day membership of a rifle club. The correct record is one day member and a probationary member. I am sorry to say that the recent tragedy in Glasgow was committed by someone who held a full firearms certificate under which he was licensed to hold two rifles and four hand guns.

The membership of the committee reflects the interests of those who administer the legislation. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Swansea for paying tribute to the fact that the shooting interests are well represented on the committee. The committee was made aware of the Government's intention to introduce this interim measure— the fees are only an interim measure— at an early stage. However, if felt most strongly that the concerns of the shooting community about the level of fees should be put on record and that the reasons and justifications for the increase should be clearly explained. After all, members of the shooting community must bear the burden of the increase.

During its first year the committee began its consideration of a wide range of issues as part of what I regard as a strenuous programme of work. The way in which firearms controls are being administered has featured prominently in the committee's discussions and will continue to do so. For this reason I hope that those involved in the British Association for Sport and Conservation's management consultancy survey and the Association of Chief Police Officers' survey on value for money will consult the committee and involve it in all the processes. I regard these studies and the advice of the committee as being complementary to each other. Together they can go towards achieving the objective of all those concerned. That is the most effective, efficient and safe way of operating the firearms legislation.

The subject of fees raises a particular point which I am sorry to say was not mentioned by my noble friend Lord Swansea. It is the validity of shotgun and firearm certificates. At present they are issued for three years. The committee has begun to give careful thought to the question of whether the validity of a firearm and shotgun certificate might be extended without any loss to public safety. The committee will look at that matter during the course of its programme of work and will be giving careful consideration to whether some extension of the duration of the certificate may be appropriate. It is too early to give any firm indication of what our advice may be. However, your Lordships may agree that in the long run this matter may well have a bearing on the level of fees.

I am not under any false illusion that my committee can help to overcome all the difficulties facing the shooting community and the police where firearms controls are concerned. However, I am confident that the Firearms Consultative Committee has a vital contribution to make towards ensuring that the licensing controls are being administered effectively, efficiently and safely.

I apologise for taking up so much of your Lordships' time on the work of the Firearms Consultative Committee. My purpose in doing so is to put firmly on record the vital role which the committee can play in establishing the true costs of an effective licensing system and the fact that it is essential for the committee to be able to play a full and informed part in that process.

1.58 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I welcome the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Swansea, tabled the Prayer notwithstanding that I disagreed with almost everything he said. However, it is useful to have such a debate not only to discuss the level of fees, which is a matter of concern to those holding firearms licences, but also to look at some of the wider issues involved in firearms control. Some of those issues were touched upon by the noble Lord, Lord Kimball.M

I first wish to deal with some of the wider issues and then deal with the level of fees. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, will be aware that there remains substantial public unease about the quality of firearms control in this country. That is so in relation both to the provisions applying to the clubs and club membership, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, and to the general question of shotgun licences. Not only is the general public concerned but so are the police. The noble Earl will be aware of their view that the present controls require to be strengthened.

Our short debate is taking place only a few days after yet another deplorable incident concerning the use of firearms. This was the tragic episode in Renfield Street, Glasgow, in which one man was killed and seven injured when a gunman fired on a crowd of pedestrians. I understand from the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, that that man has recently died.

This incident has once again led to many expressions of public disquiet about our firearms controls. I should like to remind the noble Earl of what the chairman of the Strathclyde joint branch board of the Police Federation, Mr. Ian Black, said on that incident in Glasgow: Once again, as at Hungerford, we appear to have someone shooting people he does not know and with whom he had no quarrel. The federation will press once more for greater restriction on the possession of fireams and it may well be that gun clubs, especially those where hand guns are used, will have to be curbed in the interests of the public. That represents my view, and I suspect that it represents the view of a large number of other people, including senior police officers, who have the responsibility for the safety of the public.

I look forward to hearing anything that the noble Earl proposes to say about that incident in Glasgow, speaking as he does as a representiative of the Government as a whole and not just of the Home Office.

I turn now to the rather narrower issues involved in the Prayer of the noble Lord, Lord Swansea. He has complained, as he has on previous occasions, about increases in the level of fees. He referred to the Government and the noble Earl being involved in shooter bashing. I have known the noble Earl for quite a few years now and I cannot imagine that he spends as much time as the noble Lord, Lord Swansea, appears to believe in thinking of disagreeable measures to impose on the shooters of this country.

The fact is that the noble Earl and his right honourable friend the Home Secretary have another responsibility not touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Swansea; that is, that the present Government, just like their predecessors, have a clearly defined policy in licensing systems. That policy is that if there is a licensing system, those involved in it must pay the full economic costs. That seems to me right, and I cannot believe for a moment that the general character of the criticism of the noble Lord, Lord Swansea, really bears a moment's examination.

For example, the noble Lord, Lord Swansea, said that the police are prepared to give advice, as they are, through crime prevention officers. That is not the question. The fact is that the full cost of the administration of the system by the police service must be carried by those who apply for licenses. It is as simple as that. That was the policy of the present Government and their predecessors. I can see no conceivable way in which that is likely to change. I know that we shall almost certainly not vote on this today because it is not the tradition of this House to do so. However, I must make it equally clear that were we to do so, I should have no hesitation in supporting the Government.

2.4 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmondon

My Lords, we on these Benches welcome the main purpose of this short debate; namely, to approve a variation of fees. Following the noble Lord, Lord Harris, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Swansea, for giving us an opportunity to speak on this matter. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, for giving us the benefit of his experience in this sphere and also for his authoritative stance in rebutting the unfortunate inferences of the noble Lord who moved the Prayer. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Swansea, that if it is a question of being for or against shooters, the public will be against rather than for them.

The noble Lord and his colleagues are wringing their hands. They feel that they have been badly treated. The noble Lord talked about the shooting public but I assure him that there are far more members of the public who are not shooters. If the Government are taking action which is seen to be punitive against the shooting public, then I believe that they will have the overwhelming majority of the public on their side if they are taking steps which they sincerely believe are necessary in the light of the disaster at Hungerford.

We know that disasters occur. However, the disaster at Hungerford, which the noble Lord, Lord Swansea, acknowledged was a disaster, was horrific. The opinions of the public were coloured by what took place there. This Government are under a very strict obligation to satisfy the public that they are doing everything possible to prevent that from happening again.

The noble Lord, Lord Swansea, said that the shooting public is sick and tired of being used as whipping boys for criminals. The general public, as opposed to the shooting public, is sick and tired of finding that their interests are damaged by the activities of people who are able to obtain guns by one means or another. As the noble Lord, Lord Harris, said, an increase in fees is an imperfect weapon, but it is the best we have to try to make sure, in view of all the dishonest methods which people use to obtain firearms, that there is a process of registration and certificates.

The noble Lord, Lord Kimball, said that one of the measures which may be introduced was the extension of the period of the licence. I am not happy about anything which will ease the lot of the shooter in legitimately obtaining a licence. I have no objection to the vast range of activities by the shooting public which are controlled and protected. Shooting is a sport. As the noble Lord, Lord Swansea, said, Britain has had two recent gold medallists who exercised their skills. However, we on this side of the House believe that the noble Earl, must satisfy himself that no one can accidentally or deliberately find himself in possession of a firearm, and that possession has not been made easier rather than harder. That is not to say that we should be punitive. We should be fair.

We examine fee increases on a range of other matters. This increase is from £ 33 to £ 46, which is £ 13. That is an increase of around 40 per cent. over the four year period. That may be a little on the high side although perhaps not in the context of inflation. However, I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, for explaining where the fee structure fits into the overall position. If more people need to be employed as a result of all this, then the Exchequer must ensure that the costs of policing this legislation are properly worked out and paid for by those who use the system. We on this side of the House would then have no objection.

Perhaps I may ask the noble Earl to satisfy me on one matter. Under the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 some firearms were banned. Is the noble Earl able to say whether the issue of compensation to these owners of those firearms is making progress? My information is that there has been some dilatoriness in reaching agreement on the levels of compensation to be paid.

I agree that there is a need to monitor, to control and, in some circumstances, to restrict the provision of firearms. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, will be doing the House and the country a service if he indicates that there should be an increase in fees. That will satisfy the public because licences will be marginally harder rather than easier to obtain. The public will appreciate that.

2.10 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the House is grateful to my noble friend Lord Swansea for the opportunity of debating this Order. I too am grateful, but not quite so grateful for the rather less than felicitous observations that he made concerning the Government, shooters and the Government's attitude. I know that he feels very strongly about this subject. I am also grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Harris of Greenwich and Lord Graham of Edmonton, for their support. One of the curious things about anything to do with firearms in this House is that one's friends tend to fractionate out in directions slightly different to those anticipated. However, that is all part of the pleasure.

This debate gives me an opportunity of explaining some of the problems which worry my noble friend. At the end of his speech he said that he hoped the Government would withdraw the order. My noble friend tries to press friendship a little too far if he thinks I shall do that. I may turn round and ask if he will withdraw his Motion when the time comes.

My noble friend referred to Bisley and to the Lords and Commons shooting match. I am glad that he did because he is held in the highest regard in shooting circles, not only because of his prowess as a marksman, but also because of the distinguished service which he has given over many years to the promotion of legitimate shooting interests, and most recently in his capacity as chairman of the British Shooting Sports Council.

On the subject of marksmen and women of prowess, I should like to congratulate, on behalf of your Lordships, the British shooters for the excellent results which they achieved at the recent Commonwealth Games.

No increase in fees for any purpose is ever popular, and I can understand the anxiety of those who enjoy shooting sports. But, it is a fact of life that prices do rise from time to time, and I think that it is appropriate that I should try to explain to your Lordships why the Government take the view that the increase in fees, which is set out in the order before the House, is justified.

First, the last increase in firearms fees took place some three or four years ago, in 1986. Even then, not all the fees, which were payable for the grant of a certificate or a licence under the Firearms Act, were raised in the 1986 order. The fee of £ 12 for the grant of a shotgun certificate was set as long ago as 1980 and has remained unchanged for 10 years.

Firearms controls are always contentious. What is not contentious is that the acquisition and possession of firearms must be controlled in the interest of public safety.

It is the nature and extent of the control which has to be exercised which is so often hotly disputed. Unfortunately, there are some shooters who seem to believe that it is Government policy to make life so difficult for them that they will eventually abandon shooting. Frankly, I regret that very much. My noble friend referred to what he thought was the latest government sport of shooter bashing. I must say that I thought that was an extraordinary description and totally away from reality. He said he thought that the Grovemment were trying to squeeze shooters out of existence. My noble friend has a vivid imagination, but I can assure him that today he has extended it beyond the bounds of reason.

I assure the House— and, I hope, the shooting fraternity— that our policy is and will remain to safeguard the legitimate interests of shooters. However, the public must be of paramount consideration. It is not government policy— I hope my noble friend realises this— to put unnecessary obstacles in the way of the perfectly legitimate enjoyment of shooting sports. It is not government policy to set fees at levels to discourage the legitimate use of firearms. However, it is government policy to provide for public safety and to that end the firearms Acts provide a licensing system which is designed to prevent firearms from falling into wrong or irresponsible hands. That means control, and that results in expense.

Inevitably, controls impinge on all shooters, including the legitimate shooters. There is simply no way in which to exercise controls without such controls being felt by the lawful and unlawful alike. I hope that my noble friend Lord Swansea will not think me unduly flippant if I remind him of what Charles Bowen said somewhat frivolously but nevertheless quite accurately. He said: The rain it raineth on the just And also on the unjust fella". He went on to say, which has a certain ring of relevance to our debate: But: chiefly on the just, because The unjust steals the just's umbrella". In other words, in colloquial terms, if one is intent on making life difficult for the baddies, that is bound to have an impact on the goodies.

The licensing system is essentially a public safety measure. Under it those who are granted licences are permitted, under prescribed conditions, to acquire and to use arms. For this benefit it is reasonable that they should pay.

Indeed, it has been the long-standing policy of successive governments— I am glad this was recognised by the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton— that the costs of the licensing system should be fully recovered through fees. The Government have the responsibility for setting the level of fees and we do not believe that it is right or fair that these costs, or any part of them, should fall upon tax payers, the vast majority of whom do not shoot.

If no increase in the present level of fees is made, the licensing system would cost some £ 1–2 million in the current financial year. I do not think that that is a burden which should be placed upon the tax payer. It should be shared out among licence holders. We propose therefore to increase the fee for the grant or renewal of a firearm certificate from £ 33 to £ 46. I do not think that that increase— the first since 1986— is excessive or unjustified. It costs that just to have a washing machine repaired.

The fee for the grant of a shotgun certificate will increase from £ 12 to £ 17, and for the renewal of it from £ 8 to £ 11. The last time when these fees were increased was 1980. I do not honestly think that these increases are excessive or unjustified.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, surely the noble Earl is not suggesting that we have had something so awful as inflation in the past 10 years?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am merely discussing what is a practical reality. If the noble Lord believes that he can purchase an item now for the same price that he paid in 1980, he is a remarkable person.

The fee for registration of a firearms dealer will increase from £ 68 to £ 94 and for the issue of a new certificate of registration from £ 36 to £ 50. Again, I really do not believe that these increases can be reasonably described as excessive or unjustified. On the contrary, I am bound to tell your Lordships that, even with these modest increases in fees, a full recovery of the costs of the licensing system is unlikely to be achieved.

There are several reasons for that. First, the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 and the Firearms Rules 1989 introduced tighter controls for the grant of certain certificates. These controls require some, although not a great deal, of new activity by the police. The new controls were introduced only last July and the Government have decided to make no charge to cover the cost of carrying out these activities at present. We think that it is right to await the outcome of a thorough scrutiny of costs which is being undertaken.

I believe my noble friend Lord Swansea said that 10 police forces were already employing 50 more people, and that that was more than the Government had suggested. When the Bill went through Parliament we had to make an assessment of what was the likely increase in numbers. We made that assessment in good faith. What that figure turns out to be in total— and my noble friend did not suggest it— remains to be seen. I was slightly shocked when he said that possibly the Government deliberately misled Parliament and the public. That is not so and he knows that perfectly well. He went on to say that the shooters will have to pay. I have just explained to my noble friend what fees they will have to pay. The shooters are not going to be whipping boys, as he suggested.

The 1988 Act also introduced fees for the grant or renewal of a museum licence and the approval of rifle and pistol clubs. These fees also came into effect on 1st July last year and no change is proposed in them. My noble friend Lord Swansea said that there was no consultation about the controls put on rifles and pistol clubs. My noble friend is not wholly correct. I remind him that my right honourable friend's proposals were published in November of last year and they were referred to the Firearms Consultative Committee for its advice. In the light of the advice which that committee gave to my right honourable friend, he announced his decisions on the new controls in January 1990. There was consultation, and my noble friend should not exaggerate.

The fees for the issue of visitor permits were introduced last October. At present no increase is proposed in that or any other fees prescribed in the 1988 Act. Your Lordships will note that we are not proposing, even with these new rates, to charge the shooting community the full cost of the licensing system as yet. The shooting community is being let off rather lightly. That does not reflect any intention on the part of the Government to depart from their policy of full cost recovery. We recognise the need to find out the necessary costs of administering the licensing system and then to move to recover those costs.

The Government have warmly welcomed the initiative taken by the Association of Chief Police Officers to carry out a scrutiny of the firearms licensing procedures over the next few months in order to determine the most cost-effective way of operating the licensing system, always having in mind the need for public safety. I am also aware that the British Association for Shooting and Conservation has commissioned a management consultancy team to look at the licensing procedures governing firearms and shotgun certificates. I hope that it will feel able to make its report available to the Home Office, the Association of Chief Police Officers and to the Firearms Consultative Committee.

The Firearms Consultative Committee, under the expert chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Kimball, will also be taking a close look at the administrative practices on which the level of fees is based. I thank my noble friend for the remarkable work which he has done with the Firearms Consultative Committee. My noble friend Lord Swansea asked why were the shooters not consulted about the level of the new fees. I wish to make it perfectly clear that those involved should be consulted over the administrative practices, how the certification is being carried out and whether it is being carried out correctly, effectively and fairly. That is a perfectly legitimate cause for consultation.

It is not the responsibility of the Government to invite the Firearms Consultative Committee or any other loaded interest, to discuss what the level of fees should be, provided that it is understood that the level of fees is such as to recover the Government's expenditure. It is then up to the Government to make the proposals.

My noble friend Lord Kimball said that the firearms committee will have a big part to play in going through the licensing system. I have no doubt that it will. I shall be grateful for the work that it does on this matter. The committee provides a most useful forum in which its members— who often start out with different points of view— may reach a common understanding on issues which can be frequently both difficult and contentious. I am sure that the committee will provide sound and responsible advice to my right honourable friend the Home Secretary on the wide range of subjects which falls within its remit. Its advice will always be most carefully considered.

We shall also consider in due course, in the light of the outcome of these studies, whether any further adjustment to the level of fees is needed. But there is an immediate need to increase fees in order to reflect the increase in operating costs since 1986. It is right that these costs should be recovered from those who benefit from holding firearms licences, and it would be wrong to allow the burden to fall on the taxpayer.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, asked about the shooting incident in Scotland. The incident is being investigated by the Procurator Fiscal, who will submit a report to the Lord Advocate. He will then decide whether a fatal accident inquiry should be held.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, referred to those firearms which were banned. He asked about progress in regard to payments to those involved. Almost 3,000 claims, involving more than 3,500 weapons, were received between 1st February and 30th April last year under the scheme. Payments totalling more than £ 600,000 have been made to applicants who made claims under the scheme. We hope that any outstanding claims will be completed in the not too distant future.

The order achieves the reasonable objective of enabling the Government to recover the costs. I commend it to the House and I commend to my noble friend the thought that he might think it appropriate to withdraw his Motion.

2.27 p.m.

Lord Swansea

My Lords, I can assure my noble friend that I have no intention of pressing my Motion. But before I withdraw it, perhaps I may make one or two points. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Kimball, who is chairman of the Firearms Consultative Committee, for what he said about the work of the committee. He told us that the committee is in the middle of deliberations on fees as well as on other matters. That makes one wonder all the more why the Government did not wait until those deliberations were concluded before they acted by laying the order.

My noble friend also mentioned the possible extension of the period of validity of firearms and shotgun certificates. Primary legislation would probably be needed to amend the present Act but that would certainly soften the blow of the impact of the fees on the shooter.

It is impossible and impractical to have 100 per cent. control. One cannot prevent the criminal from getting hold of firearms by buying through underground sources. All the order does is make life more difficult for the legitimate owner. The Government have succeeded in doing that several times. The fact remains that one cannot prevent the criminal from getting hold of firearms for his own purposes. Nor can one prevent someone with a previously blameless record from flipping his lid, as has happened, regrettably, more than once. Someone in the United States once made a very wise remark. He said, "When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns". That remains as true now as it was then. Perhaps noble Lords can cast their minds back to the 1968 Firearms Act. At that time the cost of a firearms certificate was five shillings— that is 25 pence in present coinage. We have come an awful long way since then and rather further than most of us would have liked.

There is another point I wish to make. The same fee is charged for a first grant and for a renewal of a firearms certificate. There is a considerable case to be made for having a differential between those two fees. An application for renewal should require less investigation and less police time spent upon it than a first grant. Nevertheless, I think we have covered the ground satisfactorily. I had not expected a different answer from that which I received from the Government. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.