HL Deb 29 October 2002 vol 640 cc110-2

2.53 p.m.

Lord Marlesford

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why the central register of persons who have applied for or have been granted a shotgun or firearm certificate, as required by Section 39 of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, which came into force on 1st October 1997, has not yet been established and when they expect to comply with this statutory requirement.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the central register is being designed, developed and implemented on the police national computer by the Police Information Technology Organisation, using its own internal resources. In order to deliver the project, a decision was taken to seek external expertise to provide interfaces between existing local firearms systems and the national database. The existing suppliers of those systems were invited to respond to an invitation to tender, but their responses did not provide a satisfactory solution.

Having reviewed the options, PITO recently issued a non-binding expression of interest for a retender to provide a single firearms licensing management system and to utilise the interface with the PNC. It is unlikely that the register will be operational before summer 2004.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. It strikes me that an expression of interest five years after Parliament's decision is rather inadequate. Does the Minister recollect that, in April 2000, the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which, in those days, was presided over by the noble Lord, Lord Corbett of Castle Vale, said: We are appalled that the national database of certificate holders … is not yet in immediate prospect … We regard this system … as absolutely central to the safe and effective operation of the firearms licensing system"?

I have heard numerous expressions of commitment on the matter from Ministers, including at least three from the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, over three years. If the Government are unable, after five years, to produce something required for the national registration of firearms, people's confidence in their ability to tackle crime—let alone terrorism—may wear a little thin.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I feel that I am guilty as charged, but, by way of response, I offer a plea in mitigation. I am aware of the noble Lord's long commitment to the subject and of the excellent reports produced by my noble friend Lord Corbett of Castle Vale, in his time as chair of the committee.

There is a fundamental desire to get the matter absolutely right—

Noble Lords


Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the history of such matters suggests that that is the right approach. There is an absolute commitment to get the matter right. Work has been steady and has proceeded as one would expect it to do.

In fairness, work on the subject has had to have regard to the need to develop concurrently a link with the National DNA Database and the criminal records on the PNC. There was also a need to freeze all new applications to allow an essential upgrade of the PNC infrastructure in order to maintain continuity of service to police forces. That important work had to be undertaken. That is an important part of the explanation for a delay that, I agree, is unacceptable.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, for his kind reminder of my interest in the matter.

Is my noble friend aware that, two years ago, the police national computer steering committee told the other place that the database would be up and running in 12 to 15 months? It is not. The Police Information Technology Organisation—son or daughter of the steering committee—has taken the matter no further forward. Do the Government still believe in the high importance of the database? We need a record of everybody who has been granted and has applied for a firearms or shotgun licence. How much public money has been spent so far in making so little progress?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am, of course, most grateful to the noble Lord for his questions; they are unfailingly helpful in this matter.

The Government are fully committed to ensuring that the system works. As I said, we must ensure that we get it right. It has a high priority, but several other applications on the PNC had to take precedence. I shall mention them because it is important that they should be in the public domain. There was the National DNA Database link, which was delivered to budget in November 2001, within two weeks of schedule; the persistent offenders register, which was also delivered on schedule, in June this year; and the violent and sex offenders register, which was rolled out in the summer and is on target for delivery in 2003. All those things had to come before the firearms certificate database, and we should consider that.

We must get the priorities right. There is a commitment to the task, and a retendering process is under way. The noble Lord asked about the cost of the procurement exercise to date. So far, £21,000 has been spent on preparing, unsuccessfully, the tender documents.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, is the Minister not convinced that his department is trying to set this up slightly on the cheap? It does not sound a great deal of money for something which seems to be absolutely crucial. Will he give the House an indication of whether relevant offences under the Act have gone up or down over the period of this unintended five-year trial?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I have some statistics on these matters, bur first we are fortunate in this country to have a low rate of armed crime by international standards. It runs at about 0.46 per 100,000 people. There has been an increase in firearms crime over the past few years. I am happy to make available to the noble Lord as much data as I possibly can, but in correspondence rather than going over a lot of statistical data from the Dispatch Box this afternoon.

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