HL Deb 20 January 1998 vol 584 cc1374-6

3 p.m.

Lord Marlesford asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress has been made in the establishment of a central register of all persons who have applied for a firearm or shotgun certificate or to whom a firearm or shotgun certificate has been granted or whose certificate has been renewed, as required under Section 39 of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, plans for the preparation of a central database of applicants and holders of firearm and shotgun certificates have been delayed. That has partly been caused by a shortage of funding in the present financial year, and partly by the need to prepare a detailed police-user requirement. An outline document has already been produced and arrangements are in hand to prepare the detailed document. That will enable full costs to be identified before the project is considered by the relevant police committee to assess the operational priority. I cannot give your Lordships a firm date yet for the eventual implementation of the system, but I shall be in a better position to do so in the new financial year. I expect, and hope, that most of the detailed planning work will take place over the next few months.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Does he agree that the Dunblane tragedy was caused by the total failure of the existing police licensing system, one consequence of which has been the payment of over £160 million of taxpayers' money in compensation for all the pistols that have been handed in? Is the Minister aware that the national register, which is required under the Firearms Act, would make less likely another Dunblane or indeed Hungerford? Is he also aware that this was an amendment to the legislation by your Lordships' House which had all-party support, against, I may say, strong briefing from the Home Office? It is now 11 months since the Act has been in force and progress has been painfully slow.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, anyone who read that most valuable report by Lord Cullen on Dunblane would find it difficult to come to the simplistic conclusion that it was entirely attributable to the total failure of the licensing system, to use the noble Lord's phrase. In fact, I respectfully suggest that the noble Lord did a notable public service by insisting, most graciously, that Section 39 of the first Firearms (Amendment) Act of 1997 should become law, and indeed it did. On my understanding, it came into force on 1st October 1997, so, although the delay is regrettable, it is not as great as suggested. The Government see great virtue in such a register. I have indicated—I hope candidly—the necessary steps which need to follow before the register becomes fully operational, which is what the Government wish.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the cost of setting up a central register is unlikely to exceed half a million pounds, which is peanuts when set against the £160 million mentioned by my noble friend Lord Marlesford? In the light of that fact, will the Government now push ahead urgently with this important requirement?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the figure that has been given is generally accurate. The estimates that I have are between £300,000 and £500,000. As your Lordships know, every time I answer a Home Office question some Member of your Lordships' House will say, "This scheme is only half a million pounds and it is peanuts". However, half a million pounds may be peanuts; but it is a big bag of peanuts by the end of the year.

Lord Henley

My Lords, half a million pounds might be peanuts to some people but I accept that it is a large amount of money for the Home Office, especially when it is setting up such a scheme. However, can the Minister tell the House just how much compensation is due to those who are entitled to it under the Firearms Act, how much has actually been paid and when the final sums will be paid? Having answered that, will the Minister then come back to the question of when they will be able to deal with the scheme as suggested by the amendment put forward by my noble friend Lord Marlesford, especially in the light of the fact that it is now six months since that came into effect and bearing in mind that Section 39 of the Act says very firmly that, "there shall be established", but we have still not seen such a scheme established?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, there are two components to the noble Lord's question. The first relates to the compensation scheme and I can readily update him in that respect. Up until 19th January the FCS (the compensation scheme) had received 40,021 claims and, by the same date, 26,341 payments had been made. Turning to the specifics which derive from the Question, we hope that the scheme will be in existence, both efficiently and properly researched, by the end of the year. For the reasons that I have already outlined, I cannot be any more specific.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, can the Minister inform the House whether I am right in thinking that, under the terms of the Scotland Bill, the Scottish Parliament will be able to decide, first, to opt out of a central national register for firearms; and, secondly, that it will be able to set its own licence terms, which could be either weaker or stronger than those which exist in the rest of the United Kingdom?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will allow me to take specific advice on that question and write to him as soon as may be possible. The short answer to that question is that I do not know the answer to either A or B.