A report into police firearms licensing finds that service falls short of adequate, says David Frost

“We found examples of good practice, but these were the exception.” This is from the conclusions drawn by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) in its September 2015 report on firearms licensing. You may be lucky to live in an area where good practice is the norm, but it is more than likely that you don’t.

As far back as 1993 HMIC described the service as varying between excellent and inefficient. The omens are not good. The 2015 report made 18 recommendations identifying who was responsible for action and setting timescales. Seven required action by Chief Constables either immediately or within three months.

After Christmas 2015 I made a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to see how much progress had been made. Many of the answers were fine examples of management speak; Cumbria, Dorset, Lincolnshire, Staffordshire, Metropolitan and Greater Manchester have yet to reply.

Areas of impact for poor firearms licensing service

South Wales wondered if disclosure would be in the public interest. Failure to respond to an FOI request can be indicative of having something to hide. Four of the recommendations are technical and won’t have much impact on certificate holders, but three will: staffing levels — which affect turnaround times — temporary permits and public engagement.

Staffing levels vary widely between Forces. As of October 2015 the number of current certificates per member of staff varied between 513 and 1,699, with an average of 1,115. In other words, staff in the worst-resourced Force were handling three times as many grants/renewals as those in the best.

The Force with 1,699 certificates per staff member ranked about sixth-worst in turnaround times, but that with 513 was only just average. Essex and Hampshire, which were the two worst Forces for turnaround, were comparatively generously staffed at 1,053 and 1,311 respectively. It’s not just the number of staff you have but how they are managed, trained and deployed which counts. Untrained staff make mistakes and take longer to do the job. HMIC recommended that the Home Office publishes turnaround times annually to name and shame. I’ve had no assurance from the Home Office that this will happen for 2015-16.

A few constabularies make extensive use of temporary permits to cover delays in the renewals. This is not what permits are intended for; a permit keeps the gun owner on the right side of the law but, for a firearms certificate, imposes serious limitations. Permits don’t authorise expanding ammunition, so you can keep the rifle but not use it. Your certificate will be backdated to the expiry date of the previous one so you end up paying for time when you can’t use the gun. Essex and Thames Valley are prime examples.

A law firm specialising in firearms said that in its recent experience, it was Thames Valley, Essex and Hampshire that gave rise to the most problems.

Public engagement

The HMIC’s most useful recommendation was the requirement to review public engagement in relation to firearms licensing service and to ensure it is practical, proportionate and well known. Some Forces thought that being able to phone the department in working hours constituted public engagement. Some don’t man the phone lines all day.

Thames Valley said it has regular meetings with registered firearms dealers (RFD) and local shooting groups. The first RFD I spoke to said he’d never heard of them. “They wouldn’t dare,” he added. “There’d be too many complaints.” Another RFD said that the meeting in 2015 hadn’t taken place and that in 2014 was cancelled. A keen Shot who sits on two local committees said he’d never heard of the meetings. Further enquiry revealed that meetings are sometimes held but they are not advertised on the website, nor does the message get round by other means. I’ve asked for the minutes but have yet to receive them.

West Mercia’s group meets three times a year. I used to be on it but, along with representatives from BASC’s firearms department, was excluded two years ago. We were critical of the way things were handled. HMIC found that West Mercia was one of the worst for turnaround times. Worse still, it was allowing certificate holders to remain in possession of their firearms when their certificates had expired due to delays in renewal. HMIC thought this probably constituted collusion in breaking the law.

There’s no mention of the group on the Force website. Despite the poor performance one member of staff had recently been given an award for “excellent work”. I wonder what that was.

A fait accompli

Hampshire has an advisory group on which I also sit. I could find no mention of it on the website. Usually it meets in February but when I emailed to ascertain the date I was told it was being delayed until April/May. Apparently there’s a reorganisation in progress. This, no doubt, is to rectify the abysmal turnaround times reported by HMIC, as Hampshire was the second-worst Force. Wouldn’t it have been better to involve the customers in this process rather than to present them with a fait accompli?

The most egregious example of failure to enable the public to hold the Police to account is the National Police Chiefs Council’s Firearms and Explosives Licensing Working Group (FELWG). FELWG has no direct representation from the shooting community. Its response to the HMIC report was a masterpiece of management jargon. The group has a new chairman so perhaps things will improve, but I’m not holding my breath.