HL Deb 30 November 2000 vol 619 cc1461-4

11.10 a.m.

Lord Marlesford asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why the central register of all persons who hold, or who have applied for, a firearm or shotgun certificate which was required to be set up under Section 39 of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 has not been set up and by what date it will be set up.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, time-scales for this project were recently reassessed because of the need to develop concurrently a link between the national DNA database and criminal records on the police national computer. I understand that the Police Information Technology Organisation, which is responsible for taking matters forward, has agreed with the Association of Chief Police Officers that a combined approach is the best way of taking forward both proposals. Development work on the project has now started. The register is expected to be operational by February 2002.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Given that the object of the amendment to the Act was to prevent a repetition of tragedies such as Hungerford and Dunblane, does the noble Lord agree that it is disgraceful that the Home Office is only now—three years later—starting to do anything about the matter? Has the noble Lord taken note of the report of the Home Affairs Select Committee of another place, chaired by his honourable friend Mr Robin Corbett, which said: We are appalled that the national database of certificate holders … is not yet in immediate prospect"? Further, does the noble Lord agree with the Select Committee when it says: We regard this system, which will allow the swift and effective exchange of information on applications made for certificates between all police forces, as absolutely central to the safe and effective operation of the firearms licensing system."? Will the noble Lord put a bomb under the Home Office?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am not entirely sure that it would be appropriate to put a bomb under the Home Office. However, the noble Lord makes an important point. He is, of course, to be congratulated on introducing this section of the legislation. Concern has been expressed about the delay, but it is our desire to get matters absolutely right. Obviously I am well aware of the correspondence entered into with Robin Corbett setting out the position as far as concerns the Section 39 amendment to the Act. Yes, we are well aware of the problem. But we are on the case and are beginning to ensure that matters are put right. I, too, share the noble Lord's view that the register is extremely important. However, it is important to bring it into line with the DNA register.

Lord Palmer

My Lords, in the light of that exchange, can the Minister confirm just who is running the country—is it the civil servants, or, indeed, is it the Ministers?

Noble Lords


Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I hesitate to say that that is a fatuous question. However, it is apparent that we are the Government of the day; that we are responsible as a government; and that we take decisions and run the country.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate

My Lords, I welcome the reply of my noble friend the Minister to the Question. Although local police forces are invaluable in policing local communities, does my noble friend agree that it is absolutely essential that intelligence is shared? Of course, we have the police national computer and the National Criminal Intelligence Service, but we are talking here of the type of information that needs to be commonly held. If is it not commonly held within police forces, it should be held nationally. I urge my noble friend to expedite this project with due haste.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I always listen most carefully to what my noble friend says on such matters. He is absolutely right. However, we also believe that it is right for us to have a combined development approach because that is the best practical solution to the problem of taking forward with minimal delay both the central register of certificate holders and the development of a link between the national DNA database and criminal records on the PNC. We believe that to be the right approach. I should add that that approach is supported by ACPO and other authorities within the police service.

Lord Monson

My Lords, there have been reports suggesting that the cost of setting up the central register will work out at something like six times the sum originally estimated. Can the Minister comment?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am unable to confirm whether or not that is the case. I do not recognise that estimate. However, I shall be happy to undertake further investigations and advise the noble Lord accordingly in due course.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the Minister may know that I was the Home Office Minister when this legislation passed through the House. At that time, I gave an assurance in very good faith that this work would be undertaken speedily. Therefore, I feel dishonoured by what has happened. Nearly four years later, almost nothing has happened. A letter written to Robin Corbett only this month stated that some 1,400 person days would be needed to complete the work. In that case, if there were 10 people involved, it would be only 140 days—a mere four or five months. The work could have been completed in one year, certainly in two years; but here we are, almost four years later, in this situation. Can the Minister explain why it is only now that there is a sense of urgency in the Home Office?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, there is always a sense of urgency in the Home Office. I refute the suggestion that we have been negligent in our approach. The noble Baroness is well aware that the legislation was passed in 1997. Indeed, I pay tribute to her for her role in that process. However, I repeat the point that I made a few moments ago. We believe that there are advantages in a combined development. I am sure that most Members of your Lordships' House recognise the value of having that DNA link. It is very important, valuable and powerful technology. It will enhance crime prevention and improve the quality of public safety. Those are our paramount concerns.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, is my noble friend familiar with the recent research by the University of Durham which shows a 52 per cent growth in the replica gun market over the past two years? Does he agree that this is a worrying and dangerous trend, not least because replica guns these days look terrifyingly like the real thing, cause real problems for the police in fighting crime and also have the undesirable effect of introducing children at a young age to a gun culture? Will he consider an amendment to what I believe is the 1968 Firearms Act to outlaw these undesirable toys so that we fall in line with countries such as France, Belgium and Holland which have already done so?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the Firearms Act already applies to replica firearms that can be readily converted to fire live ammunition or use of replica firearms to cause fear of unlawful violence. The Government understand the public concern about the misuse of replica firearms and are giving active consideration to whether further steps are needed to deal with them. We are in this respect grateful for the advice recently received from the Home Affairs Committee of another place and also from the Firearms Consultative Committee. Therefore we are giving active consideration to the very point that the noble Lord makes.

Lord Renton

My Lords, are village post offices able to provide firearms application forms to be filled in, or have people got to go to the police station?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I do not know the answer to that. I shall happily find out and advise the noble Lord.