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Grahame Morris (Easington, Labour)
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue; I know that a number of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House are interested in this subject.
In the early hours of the new year, I was greeted in my constituency by the shocking news that four people had lost their lives in a shooting in the close-knit former mining community of Horden. They were Susan McGoldrick, 47, her sister Alison Turnbull, 44, and niece Tanya Turnbull, 24, as well as the gunman, Michael Atherton, 42, who turned the gun on himself.
Following the shooting, I called for a calm and measured response, but the high emotions at the time were not conducive to constructive debate. In the months that followed, I had the opportunity to meet family members on a number of occasions. They have acted in a considered and dignified manner throughout, and looked for practical improvements that will hopefully avoid such tragic circumstances, and such a tragedy, befalling another family.
A public debate on firearms licensing is still needed, and the time is right for the public and Parliament to consider whether the current level of protection is adequate. It is said that Britain has some of the toughest gun control laws in the world, but we should not be complacent. Current firearms laws consist of 34 separate pieces of legislation, which is complex and difficult to navigate for the police and the public. The Home Office’s official police guidance is more than 200 pages long. The rules are difficult to interpret, and their application can vary greatly across the 43 police forces responsible for issuing firearms licence certificates.
consolidate the legislation and perhaps ensure that it works more effectively, we should go back to Lord Cullen’s original suggestion, which would allow gun clubs to keep disabled pistols, so that we can train Olympic athletes of the future in this country?
The Association of Chief Police Officers firearms and explosives licensing working group has called for a single form of certificate that
“remains desirable for safety and economic reasons”.
In terms of public safety, and in contrast to a section 1 firearm, shotgun applicants are not required to demonstrate a good reason for wanting a shotgun. I believe it important that people demonstrate that they have a need or use for a firearm, before they are granted a licence.
In evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, Mrs Gill Marshall-Andrews of the Gun Control Network said:
“The starting point should be that guns are lethal weapons and the onus should be on the applicant, somebody who wants to own a gun, to prove that they are”
a fit person to have one.
It should no longer be acceptable to have a shotgun without a good reason. A good reason would have to be demonstrated by the same criteria that current firearms certificate holders must meet. Good reasons for holding shotgun licences include dealing with vermin or game, target shooting at an approved venue or club, or for professional use in employment, but evidence is needed to justify those reasons. It is difficult for many, including me, to comprehend why someone would need access to firearms in a domestic setting when there is little need for immediate access to a weapon.
One of the greatest weaknesses identified by the shooting fraternity is the variation in standards across police forces. For that reason, a national licensing authority has been proposed to provide central oversight, and to ensure the consistent application of licensing procedures. Such an authority would also have the advantage of removing the police from the administrative aspect of firearms licensing, and will allow them instead to focus on the enforcement of gun controls. The financial burden of the licensing regime could also be removed from the police while ensuring that public safety remains paramount. In evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, Bedfordshire police presented a cost analysis that showed that the firearms application fees in place since 2000 never represented the true cost to the forces processing applications. Rather than the current firearms certificate fee of £50, a fee of £150 has been proposed. I am not advocating that—an appropriate fee could be determined by any new central licensing authority.
Public safety must be the primary aim of gun control legislation, but it is clear that the police, in view of significant budget cuts, can no longer afford to subsidise the licensing system. We heard in the debate a few moments ago of hon. Members’ concerns about 20% cuts in police budgets in their areas.
We cannot do firearms licensing on the cheap at the risk of compromising public safety. There is also a strong case for strengthening the link between the licensing authority and medical professionals when considering an application or a renewal of a firearms certificate. We need early and proactive intervention when a firearms holder’s mental and physical health deteriorates.
In a case in my constituency in 2008, Michael Atherton had his weapons revoked following threats to self-harm, and issues relating to mental health and gun ownership were also a factor in the case of Christopher Foster, who shot his wife, his daughter and himself after confessing suicidal thoughts to his GP.
I understand that the Association of Chief Police Officers and the British Medical Association have an agreement whereby the police alert GPs to any new applications and renewals of firearms licences. However, concerns remain where an applicant fails to disclose full and accurate medical information at the time of application or renewal. Applicants are required to provide a number of medical details, including whether they suffer from any
“medical condition or disability including alcohol and drug…conditions”.
They also have to declare whether they have ever suffered from epilepsy or been treated for
“depression or any other kind of mental or nervous disorder”.
However, that information is not routinely checked. Licensing officers approach medical professionals only when there are doubts about an applicant’s medical history, although Dr John Canning—again, giving evidence to the Home Affairs Committee on behalf of the BMA—stated that GPs are “not very often” asked to provide medical evidence, although it happens “from time to time”.
Following the case of Christopher Foster, the Independent Police Complaints Commission proposed in 2008 that the licensing force should be required to approach the applicant’s doctor in each case, in order to obtain confirmation that the medical information provided
in the application was correct. The omission of information from a firearms application was also an issue in the case of Mark Saunders in 2006, which ended in him being killed by the Metropolitan police. Mr Saunders failed to declare during the application process that he had been treated by a consultant for depression and for his tendency occasionally to drink more than was sensible—indeed, he had been referred by his GP. Unfortunately, on his application for a firearms licence he stated that he had no such health problems.
In my view, the solution is to ensure that each applicant knows that licensing officers will approach their GP as a matter of course to verify statements made on their application about their health, to ensure they are correct and accurate. My proposal would address failures by an applicant to disclose any medical problem that raises questions about their suitability to own and have free access to a firearm. Finally, I call for greater consultation between the licensing authority and those who are or have been a domestic partner of a potential applicant. A similar system is already in place in Canada, where all citizens applying for a firearms licence are required to have their present and past partners in the previous two years sign their application. Refusal to sign for any reason does not automatically mean that the police and licensing authorities will veto an application, but it will trigger further investigation by law enforcement officers. The Canadian requirements merit further exploration, and I would appreciate it if the Minister informed the House of any progress made on this matter.
There has been no knee-jerk reaction. These proposals are considered, practical measures that, if implemented, could allow the consistent application of firearms legislation, strengthen existing safeguards and ensure public safety while maintaining the rights of the shooting fraternity to have access to firearms where there is a good and legitimate purpose for their use.
As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, Durham constabulary has asked the Independent Police Complaints Commission to investigate the events leading to the shootings. There has not yet been a coroner’s inquest into the deaths. Because of the investigation and a future inquest, the House will appreciate the need for me to avoid saying anything that might be prejudicial in relation to the circumstances of this case.
I understand that there have been complexities with the IPCC investigation, although it is working through those matters as fast as possible and the investigation is
now close to completion. The final report is now being finalised and it will be shared with the families shortly. Publication of the report will, however, depend on the time scales for the inquest and the wishes of the coroner. The Government will consider carefully the results of the inquest and of the IPCC investigation, paying careful attention to any specific recommendations that they might make and any implications for wider firearms policy, to which I will now turn as I try to address the specific points that the hon. Gentleman has raised.
The Government have always made it clear that controls on firearms should be targeted fairly and proportionately, and that they should strike the right balance by securing public safety without bearing down unnecessarily on legitimate users. With this in mind, I have arranged meetings with a range of stakeholders since assuming responsibility for this work. I met Deputy Chief Constable Andy Marsh, the Association of Chief Police Officers’ lead on firearms, this week, and we discussed a number of the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised today.
Following the tragic shootings in Cumbria in 2010, the Government undertook to take a fresh look at firearms law and subsequently considered the recommendations of the Home Affairs Select Committee, which looked comprehensively at the whole range of issues. The Government published our response to the Committee’s report in September 2011. Our response sets out a number of commitments in response to the Committee’s recommendations. The Government will update the Committee, and the House, shortly on progress on those recommendations.
As the hon. Gentleman has said, it is generally recognised that the UK has comparatively low levels of gun crime, and some of the strictest gun laws in the world. It is true that these laws are complex, and I would therefore like to give a brief overview of the main controls that are in place. There are two main categories of firearms licensed by the police. First, there are those that are controlled under section 1 of the Firearms Act 1968. They are typically target shooting rifles and rifles used for hunting or vermin control. The second category is shotguns, typically used by farmers and for clay pigeon shooting. Both are possessed by means of separate certificates that are valid for five years. There is a third category of firearm, generally referred to as prohibited weapons, and these can be possessed only with the written authority of the Secretary of State.
My hon. Friend David Tredinnick raised the issue of training for Olympic pistol shooters. In advance of the London games, the Home Secretary provided an exemption for this third category of firearms to allow the Team GB shooting team to train here. She is currently in the process of issuing new authorities to British pistol squad members to train for the 2014 Commonwealth games. This is of course subject to the usual checks on applicants and to ensuring that training is confined to suitably secure ranges. The Government will look at arrangements for the 2016 Olympic games in due course.
The hon. Member for Easington raised concerns about how the licensing process operates. I would like to say something about the processes involved—again, without making reference to the specific circumstances of this case. The procedures are similar for the issue of a shotgun certificate but there are some material differences.
First and foremost, the police must be satisfied that the applicant can be trusted to possess shotguns without danger to public safety. Unlike with section 1 firearms, the applicant does not have to show good reason to have a shotgun, but the police may refuse to grant a certificate if they are satisfied that he has no good reason to have one. This is a different control, but it still allows the police to refuse applicants who have dubious reasons for wanting shotguns.
The hon. Member for Easington mentioned national control of firearms and the proposal for a national licensing authority. There is a danger that a central authority might lose touch with the sort of local information that the police need. In his report on the Dunblane tragedy, Lord Cullen recommended that licensing functions should remain with the police. Previous suggestions to replace the current police licensing system with a central civilianised licensing authority have been rejected as more costly and less efficient than the present system.
Although the Government are not in favour of a national firearms control board, the Home Office guidance to the police on firearms legislation—the hon. Gentleman mentioned it, and it is indeed long and complex—is being revised and updated to help ensure that licensing procedures are applied consistently across forces. This is an important piece of work, responding directly to the Home Affairs Select Committee’s wish for more consistency. In particular, we will highlight the need to take full account of any incidences of domestic violence when considering applications for the
grant or renewal of certificates. The comments that I have heard this evening will be particularly pertinent to that.
As we indicated in our response to the Select Committee, we do not consider that separate licensing for shotguns and firearms is causing difficulties. Applying a good reason test in the same way for both categories could be problematic. For example, unlike target shooters, shotgun owners do not always belong to clubs that could vouch that they had shot regularly. However, I assure the House that we will keep this issue under review. As I indicated earlier, the local police must satisfy themselves that an applicant for a certificate is fit to be entrusted with a firearm, and will not present a danger to public safety. This is a particularly heavy responsibility and sits right at the heart of the licensing process. Such is the basis of my discussions with ACPO.
One of the most important points raised by the hon. Gentleman was about the need for medical checks on those who have access to firearms. I completely agree that it is important that the police are made aware of medical conditions that affect a person’s suitability to possess firearms. Both the hon. Gentleman and I will therefore—
House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).