We don’t want unsuitable people in possession of firearms, but shouldn’t there be changes to the standard of service the police provide? Asks David Frost

In September 2015 HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) published its report into the efficiency and effectiveness of the firearms licensing system. It had the infelicitous title “Targeting the Risk” which rather suggests that legitimate firearms owners are a problem – we aren’t. Moreover it later goes on to talk about its recommendations “all of which are designed to protect the public”. Of course we don’t want unsuitable people in possession of firearms but oughtn’t there to be something about the standard of service the police should be providing to the certificate holder?

HMIC didn’t inspect the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s Firearms and Explosives Licensing Working Group (FELWG) but took a side swipe at it. FELWG is responsible for developing policy, maintaining standards and securing consistency of approach between forces. The fact that HMIC found so much going wrong is a clear indication that FELWG had not been doing the job it is supposed to. It now has a new chairman so maybe there will be improvements.

One reason for the absence of change is the total lack of direct user input. The firearms licensing system is a police monopoly and you can’t even go to a neighbouring force if your own provides a poor service. Successful businesses take good care to obtain customer feedback. The licensing system is so poor partly because the police don’t bother about the customer’s views. That applies both to FELWG, which has no user representation, and to most individual forces. Thames Valley has not held a meeting with its customers for over four years, although in response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request they claimed to hold one every 18 months. Unsurprisingly I hear numerous complaints about the standard of its service.

Customer service

So, nearly a year on, just what has changed? Not much, if the publicly available information is to be believed. Efficiency, as far as most of us are concerned, means that our applications are handled quickly and fairly. The Home Office was tasked by HMIC to publish the average turnaround times for each force. The annual statistics for 2015-16 have just been published and this information is nowhere to be seen. Without it neither the public nor the Police and Crime Commissioner can assess how well individual forces are doing. Some forces including Dyfed-Powys and Thames Valley don’t even keep the statistics. What does that tell you about their interest in customer service?

Such information as is available shows that improvement, if any, is slow. For example, Kent which according to HMIC was taking about 80 calendar days to grant a Firarms Certificate (FAC) is now taking 138. FAC renewals have gone from about 22 days to 108. Sotgun Certificate (SGC) grants and renewals are up from 70 to 132 days and from 25 to 224 days respectively. In other words things have got twice as bad in a year.

Humberside was the fifth worst performing force according to HMIC. I have recently heard of one applicant whose grant of a coterminous certificate took a staggering 245 days. Although he was interviewed in February he didn’t get his certificate until July. That’s nearly three times as long as the figures in the HMIC report.

More delays

Freedom of Information (FOI) requests by the Countryside Alliance have shown some forces are issuing huge numbers of temporary permits because of delays in renewals. A permit allows you to possess guns but seriously limits what you can do with them especially in the case of rifles. The old mantra used to be that issuing a permit took almost as long as a certificate. If that is so why not just renew the certificate? The Home Office figures show that in 2015-16 there were 119,765 applications for certificate renewal of which just 220 were refused. The mathematicians amongst you will know that is 0.18 per cent. That is a negligible figure and has remained unchanged for more than fifteen years. In contrast 1,745 certificates were revoked. You were eight times more likely to have your certificate revoked, usually for domestic reasons, than have its renewal refused.

Where there is a police induced delay in renewal the certificate should run from the date of renewal not the date of expiry of its predecessor. Thames Valley tell me they are doing this with SGC. Other forces should do the same.

The only thing all forces do efficiently is cash your cheque. Payment is due on grant or renewal not on application. 1,153 people had their applications refused in 2015-16 so the police were in improper possession of their money for the time the process took. The poor chap in Humberside was effectively making an interest free loan for 245 days!

Training

Every one of the three HMIC inspection reports (1993, 2002 and 2015) has commented adversely on the training provided to police licensing staff. Not only is there no agreed standard of training, let alone a universal course, but there isn’t even an agreed list of the skills needed by licensing staff. HMIC gave FELWG and the College of Policing a leisurely year in which to identify the skills needed. After that they’ll get around to devising a course which, maybe, the police will send their staff on. It doesn’t seem to have dawned on the police that getting people properly trained is in their and our interest. Things take longer and the risk of error increases if staff don’t know what they’re doing.

HMIC criticised the police’s failure to follow the Home Office Guidance and Authorised Professional Practice. That is one cause of the postcode lottery many experience. The new Policing and Crime Bill will make the guidance a quasi-legal document and require the police to take more notice of it. One simple way in which FELWG could encourage a more uniform service is by having one website for licensing information instead of 43, many of which are riddled with errors and omissions. That must surely save time and money too.

Am I surprised that so little has changed in the past year? After many years in this game, I am not.