HL Deb 27 January 2005 vol 668 cc1388-91

11.8 a.m.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale asked Her Majesty's Government:

When, and at what total cost to public funds, they plan to make the national firearms database fully operational.

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

My Lords, as my noble friend is aware, it was necessary to suspend the roll-out of the programme of the national firearms licensing management system as a result of a number of technical difficulties that came to light during piloting of the system last year. Most of those have now been successfully resolved, including one of the key issues, which was the inability to print the certificate. The question of slow running is still being investigated. Once that has been resolved, a new roll-out schedule will be negotiated with individual forces. The total cost of the project is expected to be about £6.2 million.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for giving the latest instalment in this sorry saga. Given rising gun crime, is it not a continuing risk to public safety that after seven years the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Home Office still do not have a national firearms database up and running, as Parliament decided? Why, after spending these millions of pounds on what looks like another IT fiasco in Whitehall, are we still without a protective database of this kind? Will the Minister confirm that the Metropolitan Police and Lancashire Constabulary are to run a joint pilot scheme in April and May, following a pilot scheme last year, which, as he reminded the House, revealed that the certificates could not be printed and that in any event the scheme ran far too slowly to be of any effective use to the police?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, we are trying to avoid a computer fiasco—plenty of examples of such fiascos exist that we all know about. We will not roll out and run the system until we are confident that it will work. It would not serve any purpose trying to roll out a system if the printing were slow. I understand that the problem with regard to that slowness arises in the individual police networks, not in the lines from Hendon where the base is situated.

As regards a pilot, I am not aware that Lancashire Constabulary and the Metropolitan Police are due to undertake another pilot. However, they were the pilot authorities in July 2004 when serious technical problems arose that stopped the roll-out as planned. Nevertheless, I would want to ensure that we get the system right before it is put into operation. Therefore, further piloting may occur. An audit of the technical system is being conducted. That should finish by the end of this month and be reported on. I invite my noble friend and other noble Lords to chase me and the Home Office on this matter. Our expectation is that we will probably be ready for roll-out by July this summer. However, that is an expectation; it is not a firm commitment.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, does the Minister understand how important it is to get this system up and running, given that it is seven years since Parliament said that it was necessary, and given the endless statements on the matter by Ministers in this House, including the noble Lord and the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland? The inability of the Home Office to get under a million people with firearms certificates on to a single computer gives one no confidence that the Home Office has the competence to introduce an identity card scheme which would cover 60 million people.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I say in answer to the supplementary question of my noble friend Lord Corbett that the Met and Lancashire Constabulary will continue to be involved in the pilot; in other words, it is a continuous pilot. They were involved in the pilot last year and they will continue to be involved in it.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, that the situation is incredibly frustrating. I have said to Home Office officials, "Heaven forbid that one serious incident such as has occurred in the past should happen before this scheme is rolled out. If it does, the roof will fall in on someone somewhere". However, I make clear that this system will not constitute a cast iron guarantee of preventing such difficulties.

I also say to the noble Lord that this system involves rather more than just putting 800,000 people on a register. I accept that that was what was asked for originally. If that were all that was planned, it would have been done a long time ago. However, that would not serve the purpose of the scheme. That is why the costs have gone up from the original estimate. We plan to introduce a much more sophisticated operation in which all 43 police forces in England and Wales and those in Scotland would be able to search the system for information on anyone who has applied for a firearms certificate, been refused one or whatever. It is not simply a matter of drawing up a list of 800,000 people who have firearms certificates; the system is rather more complicated than that because a simple list would not help to prevent tragedies such as have occurred in the past.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

My Lords, is not my noble friend right to continue pursuing this matter, not least, as he has said today, to draw the House's attention to the problems that we will face in believing that the Home Office is capable of delivering a robust ID card system? Surely there is a direct read-across from the answer the Minister has just given. The latter would be an even more sophisticated system that would require easy and proper access to information that had been properly stored. How will the Government persuade us that they will meet one of the five tests that we on these Benches will wish to see satisfied before the Identity Cards Bill can have a fair passage?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I refer to what is behind some of the questions—I do not impugn what anyone has said—namely, that the Home Office perhaps did not like the policy that we are discussing. However, as was said to me this morning, if the Home Office had wanted to block it, that could have been done much more easily, much more cheaply and at a much earlier point than dragging the situation out for seven years. In other words, there is a commitment in the Home Office to get this system up and running. I want this House to pursue Ministers, and Ministers to pursue officials, on the matter.

I am not involved in the detail of the Identity Cards Bill but one of the key lessons as regards other IT systems—I was involved in only one such system when I was at MAFF—and previous inquiries undertaken throughout Whitehall by the Public Accounts Committee, is that once you set up a system and put an operation in place, you should not change it while you are building the system. If you do, it will not deliver what you originally intended. Loads of people are always approaching Ministers and saying, "We can make this a lot better than you originally planned. We can do lots of other work on it". The minute you start to do that, the costs go through the roof and you do not deliver what you originally intended. You need to maintain very tight control and say, "This is what we want to do. Let us make that work and only when that is working successfully should we start thinking about expanding it". That is the lesson to be learnt from Whitehall IT catastrophes that have occurred under governments of both parties.

Lord McNally

My Lords, the Minister wants us to take a continuing interest in this matter. I assure him that with the noble Lords, Lord Corbett and Lord Marlesford, firmly gripping each ankle there is no likelihood that it will disappear from our agenda. Has the Home Office any other initiatives as regards the root problem which has become much worse during the eight years that we have waited for the system—gun ownership and gun crime—and which this register was supposed to counterbalance?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, there has been an overall increase in the level of gun crime. In 2003–04 the increase was less than 1 per cent. The number of offences has risen each year since 1997–98. However, the 2003–04 rise is the smallest in that period. The figures also show a decrease of 7 per cent in the use of hand guns in the period 2002–03. Excluding air weapons, gun crime as a proportion of recorded crime has remained fairly static at about 0.17 per cent. We are about fourteenth or fifteenth in the league of countries for firearms homicide. It is a very serious matter even though it comprises a very small part of overall crime. It needs to be tackled very seriously. Getting the national database up and running is part of tackling it.