HL Deb 20 May 2003 vol 648 cc685-7

2.43 p.m.

Lord Marlesford

asked Her Majesty's Government

: Whether it is still their intention that the national register, required by Section 39 of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, should be operational in the summer of 2004.

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

My Lords, as the noble Lord is aware, this has been taken forward as part of a national firearms licensing management system that interfaces to the police national computer. I understand from the Police Information Technology Organisation that the results of the tendering process are now being evaluated and the project is expected to be operational by 31st August 2004.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, I am delighted that the Minister can confirm his earlier determination to do something after all this time. I do not particularly mind all the changes of name. I rather agree with Chairman Deng Xiaopeng that it does not matter what colour the cat is, provided that it catches the mice. The important question is whether the Minister agrees that, next summer, police anywhere in Britain should he able to access in real time the computer system to check whether someone has a firearm or has been refused one. Does he agree that the next stage will be to carry out licensing centrally, as is the case with motorcars and driving licences in Swansea, taking the burden off the police forces?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I do not understand the reference to the change of name. My name has remained the same throughout the process. I agree that the intended outcome is a national licence management system, with one source providing

information on who has applied for a licence, who has one, and who was refused one, and one centre for dealing with the application process. It is to be hoped that the system will be operational from 31st August next year.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, will the national system do away with the inspection and licensing of guns in rural areas by a policeman who knows the people? It would be better if that system were not abandoned.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the local system of enforcing who has a licence and who does not have one will be assisted by easy access to information on who has a licence and who has been refused one. But it does not obviate the need for a local means of enforcing the licensing system.

Lord Tanlaw

My Lords, is the Minister in a position to say now what percentage of gun crime is committed by legitimate holders of firearms or shotgun licences? Will he be in a position to answer that question when the register is up and running after 31st August 2004?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I cannot give an answer now, and it would be quite difficult to give one even after the system is up and running. The system aims to identify who has a licence and who has been refused one. If I can give more information than I have provided today, I shall write to the noble Lord.

Lord Renton

My Lords, although every citizen of the United Kingdom is obliged to obey every word of the law, is the noble and learned Lord aware that many details of the law do not come to the notice of those who must obey them? What steps will the Government take to alert the people who must obey this provision?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, it is not about a change in the law; it is about giving effect to existing law. What is being said is that people must still apply for a licence, but the question is how the information is recorded. If there are administrative changes to the application process, no doubt a means of telling people about them will have to found. This does not involve a change in the law; it involves a change in the management of the process.

Lord Elton

My Lords, given that Parliament laid on the Home Office the responsibility for bringing the system into force in 1997, why will the instruction not be carried out until 2004?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I acknowledge entirely the obligation in Section 39. On previous occasions in the House, my noble friend Lord Bassam and I have given detailed explanations of what happened and why it has not been brought into force before August 2004. The basic answer is that steps were taken to work up a proposal to bring the provisions into force, but then other priorities relating to the police national computer superseded them.

Those were entirely legitimate priorities, such as linking to a DNA database. A scheme was worked up that, it was discovered, could not work. All those steps were legitimate attempts to deliver on the obligation imposed by Parliament. We now have a date on which the system will become operational.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord give some idea of the total cost of the register to the Government and, more importantly, to the individual licence holder?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I cannot give a precise figure at present because the tenders have not yet been accepted. But, subject to commerciality and confidence, I will notify the noble Lord of the figures. Applicants must already pay for a licence, and, so far as I am aware, the price will not increase.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford

My Lords, further to the question by the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, is it really the case that the Minister cannot tell us the percentage of those convicted of gun crime who were in lawful possession of a gun? Would it be reasonable to assume that practically none, if any, was in lawful possession of a gun? I should have thought that that information would be readily available.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, is to be congratulated on pressing his amendment in 1997. One of the purposes of a national licensing management system, which is what he sought, was to provide precisely that sort of information. I can provide no information at this precise moment, but I shall ask if I can provide more information.

Lord Vinson

My Lords, would the noble and learned Lord agree that we are possibly tackling this problem from the wrong end? Can he give any indication of how many unlicensed guns will remain unlicensed when this system is in place?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, no, I do not know. It is to be hoped, as few as possible. That is what the amnesty which finished at the end of last month was trying to deal with.