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Could privatising firearms licensing be good?

Police forces are under considerable pressure to cut costs. In an innovative move, Lincolnshire outsourced many functions, including firearms licensing, to G4S in April 2012. It raised a few eyebrows at the time but 18 months later it’s possible to see how well it is working. A few weeks ago I visited Lincoln to find out.

The decision to outsource was based partly on cost grounds and partly on the need to improve the standard of service. There are regular meetings between the force and G4S to monitor progress against the standards and targets required by the contract. Superintendent David Lynch told me that the force was pleased with the way things were working.

Staff reshuffle
Lincolnshire Police transferred 575 staff to G4S at the start of the scheme. All the licensing office staff and the FEOs became G4S staff, while the original manager and deputy remained police staff. A G4S manager, Sue Ryden, now has responsibility for managing staff and organising the daily workload.

Sue explained that the work was now highly task- driven, with each member of staff being given work to do at the beginning of the day and their progress being regularly checked. Reports are run at regular intervals so that reminders can be sent out. Whereas previously the department manager had responsibility both for running the department and for taking decisions on grants etc, this task is now split and two decision-makers have recently replaced the former manager and deputy.

G4S staff now process firearms applications for Lincolnshire Police force

Sharing the workload

A new approach to organisation and training means that all administrative staff are multi-skilled and can each undertake any of the jobs in the office. This flexibility has led to greater efficiency, especially when staff are absent for some reason. Some tasks, such as checks on the Police National Computer system can also be done by staff from other departments.

A major change, which is very evident when you visit the office, is the digitisation of all the old paper files. While this saves space, it more importantly makes records easily accessible to both office staff and FEOs. Staff no longer have to go to a paper library, which was a laborious way of obtaining information. The new document management system was nearly complete when I visited and should be fully in place by the time you read this. It wasn’t clear to me, however, how this will tie in with the new national eCommerce system, which is due to be trialled this year.

Renewal packages are sent out 80 days before expiry and turnarounds are taking about two weeks. Applications are handled in strict order of receipt. The standard set is a 60-day turnaround, reducing to 45 days.

FEOs had been trained locally before moving to G4S and a new training package is being developed in-house for existing and new FEOs. In the last six years, no FEOs have been sent on the Dorset course, which is the only one recognised nationally but the two decision-makers are due to attend the course in the spring.

Limits to delegation
There is a limit to the extent to which powers can be delegated by the Chief Constable and G4S staff have no authority to seize firearms so there is an arrangement whereby a police officer is called in if this needs to be done. Because the decision makers are police staff, the responsibility for grants, renewals and refusals still lies with the Chief Constable not G4S. These decisions are taken by two police staff working on a job share basis.

A medical report is sought, at police expense, in respect of every renewal or grant and GPs are informed when a certificate is granted. The ‘other lawful quarry’ condition is routinely applied to FAC which is in accordance with ACPO guidelines.

I was told there was no policy on mentoring (mentoring is contrary to Home Office and ACPO guidelines) and that mentoring conditions are not routinely applied. Newcomers to firearms use are encouraged to learn from other users.

A cost effective and efficient service
At the time of my visit I was disappointed to find that some key staff had not read in its entirety the new Home Office guidance, which had been rolled out a month earlier. David Lynch pointed out it was guidance but they worked towards following it.

It will be interesting to hear readers’ experiences of the new system. During my visit I got the clear impression that the police and G4S are committed to making the new arrangements work and to deliver a cost effective and efficient service. Other forces may have much to learn.