HL Deb 04 November 2004 vol 666 cc425-8

11.14 a.m.

Lord Marlesford asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress there has been on the establishment of a national firearms register, as required by Section 39 of the Firearms (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 1997; and when they expect it to become fully operational.

The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker)

My Lords, as the noble Lord is aware, this matter is being 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 a contract was agreed with Anite Public Sector Limited and that the development of the application was completed in July this year. However, a number of technical difficulties have come to light during the piloting of the programme, and I regret that it has been necessary to suspend the roll-out programme until the New Year, but it will be rolled out in the New Year.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in April 2000 the Home Affairs Select Committee, said that it was appalled that the national database was not an immediate prospect two years after the implementation of the Act? The Committee regarded it, as absolutely central to the safe and effective operation of the firearms licensing system". Is it not a scandal bordering on an outrage that the Home Office, seven years after Parliament made a clear mandate for something really important in fighting crime and terrorism to be put into place, has failed to do so? If Ministers are unable to control the arrogance and incompetence of the Home Office, is there not a case now for the Parliamentary Ombudsman to take over an investigation into this whole matter?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I fully respect where the noble Lord is coming from, as the author of the legislation, but this is not a case of maladministration. Clearly, there have been unacceptable delays, but the delays were known about and not easily avoided. There were resources to establish a link between the national DNA database and the criminal records on the police national computer and a freeze on all new applications to allow an essential upgrade of the police national computer. There were delays in the early part of the period that the noble Lord is talking about, which we fully accept. The scheme did not go full speed ahead, but the Government are fully committed to meeting the obligations under Section 39.

A database on its own is of not much business benefit to the police. It has to work. It was set up and operational this summer and was piloted. Two key problems were discovered during the piloting. First, the system was unable to print the certificates, which I understand has mainly been dealt with now. Secondly, the system was running incredibly slowly; much too slowly for the police operational services. Those matters are being dealt with.

By the way, I am quite happy—I am sure that such a thing has happened in the past—to invite the noble Lord to go to the Police Information Technology Organisation for a full update briefing, which it would be more than happy to provide. We are determined to get a full roll-out of this programme.

Lord McNally

My Lords, I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, is accusing the Government of maladministration; he is accusing the Home Office of dumb insolence. The reply to his Question may have been justifiable in 1998 or 1999, but it is totally unacceptable to Parliament seven years after the passage of the Act. The Minister has promised us action next year. I can assure him that the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, will return to the charge and he will have full support. The Minister had better tell his officials that it is an insult to Parliament to ignore an instruction, which the Home Office resisted at the time and many people suspect is still resisting.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, when I was a daytime Home Office Minister, I was being chased in the House by the noble Lord on this issue, so I am fully aware of the background. I fully accept that action did not initially proceed with all speed. The Home Office found that there were other issues that needed resources. I freely admit that. On the other hand, the system was set to go live after piloting in September this year—the September just gone—so there is no delay. We want to get it running, but during the pilot there were a couple of issues that caused real problems. We could set a date, but unfortunately I do not have one at the moment. The roll-out will be early next year. However, there is not any undue delay on this. Activity is going on to get this system up and running. Notwithstanding that, it is true that for the first two or three years there was less than full-hearted full steam ahead on the issue.

Lord Crickhowell

My Lords, it was not just at the beginning that there were delays. Ministers have, on 18 separate occasions over the past six years, given the kind of undertakings to the House that the Minister is now giving. A lot of them have been given in recent years. Does not the Minister feel a sense of shame and humiliation on behalf of Ministers that they are unable to deliver the promises that they give to this House, and that such a codswallop has been made of this project that they cannot even meet their legal obligations?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, if what has just been said was true, the answer would be "yes"—but it is not. No Minister has come to this House over the years and said, "We have got the system up and ready to run". We are ready to press the button, but we needed to do a pilot study to ensure that the system worked—and we did that. The pilot identified a couple of key issues, as I have told the House, which are being dealt with at the present time. No Minister has got that far or that close to delivery.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, the noble Lord will of course recognise that it is wholly exceptional for there to be a delay of seven years in implementing a decision of Parliament. Is not the explanation that, not liking the proposal, the Home Office decided to set about the task in its own time and its own way? That is the whole trouble. Would not it have been better, if the Home Office had reservations about the proposal, to have been frank about it, come back to Parliament and, if necessary, produced amending legislation?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I was not here of course when the legislation went through, but the House did not see fit to put a time scale on it.

Noble Lords


Lord Rooker

My Lords, hang on a minute. Let us be clear about this. We are determined to implement the legislation, and there is no bad faith in that. But other issues—and I have indicated two or three of them—took precedence for of Home Office resources in the early years. There is no secret about that.

The fact is that this system will be rolled out next year. It has got as far as the piloting, the issues discovered in the piloting are being corrected, and we will have the system rolled out. I just hope that I am around to be able to announce it.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that the trouble is not with licensed firearms but with unlicensed firearms? The register is essential for the police throughout the country in combating the dangers of unlicensed firearms.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I take the noble Lord's point, but this system will not register unlicensed firearms.

The Earl of Shrewsbury

My Lords—

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, it is time to move on to the next Question.