HL Deb 25 March 2003 vol 646 cc646-8

2.44 p.m.

Lord Marlesford asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress has been made with implementing Section 39 of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 concerning a central register; and whether they can now give a date when this register will be fully operational.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)

My Lords, the solution adopted is to deliver a national firearms licensing management system that interfaces to the police national computer. The necessary police national computer software for the register, which is the first stage, is being developed and will be available by October 2003. Invitations to tender for the national firearms licensing management system and to develop the interface to the police national computer have been issued to those companies shortlisted from the recent expressions of interest. The aim is that the system should be operational in summer 2004.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, and I congratulate him on being the first person to show some progress on the matter. Does he recognise that we shall close the book only when the system is up and running, and that it is five years since Parliament put it on the statute? Does he agree that there are many simple ways in which the security of the people of this country, from both crime and terrorism, can be improved by the use of simple electronics, as my noble friend Lord Wade showed last week in his fascinating report, Chips for Everything? Does he also recognise, for example, that a lot of work needs to be done—it is a different subject but the same theme—on passport control as regards which there is virtually no computer-based administration at all?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I recognise that a great deal can be done, that computers have a large contribution to make, and that the scheme that was added by an amendment to the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 can make a real contribution. The noble Lord is right to imply or expressly to say that it has taken too long to reach this point, but we are making progress. One reason for the delay was to ensure that the scheme that we adopted would actually be used by police forces across the country. Instead of police forces having to deal with their own local systems and a national system, the right solution to adopt was one where they would all be able to use a national system and get the sort of coverage that the noble Lord had in mind when he proposed the amendment that was eventually made to the then Bill.

Earl Peel

My Lords, notwithstanding the Minister's encouraging response, he must show some embarrassment that it is five years since the provision became part of the 1997 Act and that the Government have failed to implement it. Is that not an extraordinarily bad record?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I have indicated that matters have taken too long. The critical thing is to identify specifically the progress that we are now making, to identify a target date by which implementation can be achieved, and to make sure that we introduce something that the police actually use. There must be a proper database of firearms certificates, and of individuals who have applied for firearms certificates and been refused.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, the Minister who last replied from the Home Office on the matter was the noble Lord, Lord Bassam. He indicated the need to establish not only a PNC link, but a DNA link with the register itself. Will the noble and learned Lord confirm whether the link has now been established?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I think that my noble friend referred to the fact that the PNC's development of a DNA link, particularly in relation to acquittals, had delayed the building up of the process. I cannot say precisely where matters have got to, but I offer to write to the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia.

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, does the Minister agree that his department should have given much better leadership early on rather than waiting for some individual police forces to come forward with their own computerised systems, which have ultimately been incompatible with one another? Is he aware that in Northern Ireland we have had a computerised register for some time? Even that is having to be modernised to come into line with what the Government might wish to see. However, I believe that the specifications are by no means clear, which is causing a lot of disruption among police forces. Matters should surely have been carried out from the top down.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, one has that problem in relation to a large number of areas of public service. The position on local firearms registers is that 42 out of 43 areas have one of two proprietary systems available. Much of that situation built up over time before the amendment introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford. It is unfair to say that the system could have simply been imposed from the top down. One constantly has to try to develop a system that embraces where agencies have got to. That is what we are doing in relation to the national management system.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, does the Minister accept that 13 Questions on this subject have been answered in this House since December 1998? On that occasion, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, replied and, most recently, in January this year, the noble and learned Lord himself responded. In their replies, all Ministers have said that this is a high priority issue. Indeed, in November 1999, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, said that it was a priority development, and, in February 2000, he said that the system would be in place in the summer of 2001. Who is in charge of this project? Is it civil servants or Ministers, and who accepts responsibility for the five-year delay?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I have not counted the number of Questions, but I entirely accept what the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, says. She is waving the piece of paper at me in order to prove that there have, indeed, been 13 Questions. I accept that. It is the responsibility of Ministers, working in conjunction with officials, to deliver the register. I have made it clear that the process is taking too long and I have set out in detail the steps that we shall take.

Lord Tanlaw

My Lords, when the noble and learned Lord has reached the target date, will he be able to say how many convicted criminals are holders of firearms licences?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, one of the benefits of adopting a national licensing management system is that one will be able to draw national statistics from the system, including the one to which the noble Lord refers.