HL Deb 30 June 1997 vol 581 cc7-9

2.54 p.m.

Baroness Blatch asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress is being made on implementing the compensation scheme established under the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the Firearms compensation section is ready to begin immediate processing of the first claims and applications for ex gratia payment forwarded by the police.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that there is considerable anxiety on the part of the police and those who are shooters and have guns which are subject to the Act? The timescale is short, documentation and guidance arrived late and the police have written to the Home Office expressing their concern. Even the forms are now giving rise to concern. Legal opinion has been sought which has called into question some of the items on the surrender form. This is an unsatisfactory state of affairs when the implementation scheme begins just tomorrow.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, planning for the exercise of taking in up to 200,000 handguns started in February of this year following Royal Assent. As the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, indicates, we have received representations from police associations and from those officers who will be directly involved in these transactions. Some police forces would have preferred a longer period of notice. We have drawn a balance between speed and efficiency on the one hand and preparation on the other and by and large we think we have it about right.

Earl Peel

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that there appears to be considerable discrepancy in the way that the police are carrying out their duties under the compensation part of the Act? It has been brought to my attention that the Lincolnshire police are ensuring that those who hand in their weapons must do so on a certain day at a certain time. Furthermore, failure to do so may result in the police revoking firearm certificates. I am told that in South Wales the police are insisting that the handing in procedure can be done at one point only. However, by contrast, I believe that the West Sussex police are allowing people to hand in their weapons over the three-month period during weekends and in the evenings. There are eight separate . locations where people can hand in their weapons. Does not the Minister agree that it would be preferable if all police forces were to follow the example set by West Sussex, bearing in mind that those with guns who have been caught up in the 1997 legislation, and indeed the legislation which we are about to debate today, have been caused a great deal of inconvenience?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not entirely agree with the thrust of the noble Earl's question. Chief constables have a degree of operational autonomy which we in this country rightly cherish. The problems of a large country force are not the same as those of an urban force. I am aware of the position in South Wales. Bridgend has been nominated as a centre and that appears to have caused no particular problems to the shooting community in South Wales according to the information that I have. It is for chief constables to reach informed decisions bearing in mind operational constraints, the necessity in some circumstances to have experts present at police stations, and of course the overall financial limits that apply in administering their responsibilities.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, bearing in mind the apparent criticism of what might be described as the public administration of this operation, and also bearing in mind the difficulties in terms of public administration that have come to the public's attention as a result of the operation of the Child Support Agency, can the Government give the House an assurance that the Civil Service as a whole will look at the whole concept of public administration as there seem to have been considerable difficulties arising from the previous administration's conduct of public affairs?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am sure that is an interesting observation but I am not entirely sure how it incorporates itself into an answer to this Question. Of course all publicly administered schemes ought to be run efficiently, with due consideration for the interests of all concerned. I am confident that chief constables will do that.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am somewhat disturbed at what appears to be apparent disregard for the interests of individuals who are affected by the Act. What is worrying is that in one part of the country one can be threatened with revocation of a licence, which I suspect is beyond the law anyway, given that there is a full three-month period in which to conform with the Act. It seems that this is an imposed timetable and therefore it is incumbent upon police authorities—even accepting their autonomy—to administer it in a way that is consistent with the intentions of the Act itself.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I entirely agree that no chief constable should act ultra vires or outside his legal powers. I have no knowledge, or any direct evidence, that that has happened. Should the noble Earl, Lord Peel, wish to take the matter further, I shall consider anything specific he has in mind. I repeat that chief constables are simply citizens in uniform, to use the well-known phrase. They must discharge their duties according to the legislative scheme.

Lord Burton

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the difficulty which some police forces have as a result of the shortage of time? For instance, 10 days ago the northern constabulary, which has the largest number of weapons to collect and the largest land area to cover, had received hardly any papers from the Home Office. Surely that does not give it good time in which to prepare.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not know the specifics of that. If the noble Lord wishes to provide me with details, I shall look into that aspect as well. I should find it disappointing if documentary material had not gone out at a time at which the chief constable in question, or his designated officers, could deal with it appropriately.

Viscount Caldecote

My Lords, will the Government review the compensation provisions in the Act so that those whose businesses have been wrecked by the legislation will be fairly compensated, as well as those who hand in their Firearms?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, compensation for those who may suffer loss of business is outwith the scheme of the present Act; and there is no proposal to review that.