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The real cost of no licence fee rise

The decision to reject a licence fee rise is a short- term ploy that may backfire later

There was widespread expectation that gun certificate fees, last increased in 2001, would be raised this year. But Prime Minister David Cameron has personally vetoed a rise. I think that was the wrong decision and would like to list some things that could usefully be done when licence fees are eventually increased.

The decision seems to have been political and was, no doubt, taken with next year’s election in mind. Would numerous Conservative certificate holders have defected to UKIP or even to Labour if fees had gone up? I doubt it. Most of us are fair-minded enough to realise that in these inflationary times a licence fee increase is long overdue. Maybe UKIP leader Nigel Farage is seen as a threat since he’s a keen shooting man, but people vote with more than just shooting in mind.

Details of the proposed increase are vague but a headline figure of £88 has been mentioned. That’s significantly less than the police had wanted and only just a little above inflation since 2001. What is known is that the police proposals, put forward in 2013, were rejected by the Home Office, which set up a working party to look into the matter. The working party included representatives from the police and shooting organisations, which are believed to have agreed a set of increases that would be regarded as reasonable by the shooting public.

The time taken to grant and renew certificates was analysed. To this was added time for training (eight days has been mentioned) and sickness absence, enabling a fair cost to be worked out. Given that training for licensing staff in many forces varies from poor to non-existent, the provision of time for training would enable the customer to insist that, in future, staff were properly trained. Proper training is money well spent and would reduce the cost of issuing certificates because well-trained staff take less time to do the job and make fewer mistakes. The newly established College of Policing is apparently coming up with plans for better training.

Short-sighted view
A few thousand certificate holders with renewals due in the next 12 months may be delighted by Cameron’s decision but that would be a short-sighted view. Those opposed to the private ownership of firearms will now have a field day claiming that shooting is being subsidised by the taxpayer. It will also be a disappointment for Chief Constable Andy Marsh, who speaks for the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) on licensing matters. He has invested considerable time and effort in improving the system, no doubt with the implied carrot of an increase in fee income as compensation. Police budgets are being squeezed and with fee income not matching reasonable costs, there is justifiable resentment.

If a decision is put off until after the election, who knows what may happen. An incoming Labour government might be less friendly than the Coalition. We could end up with a larger licence fee hike and having to pay for things that are now free. The left wing would see a large increase in fees as one in the eye for the “toffs”, even though that description fits few shooters.

If the headline cost of a certificate was increased from £50 to £88, I’d not be too fussed, especially if it were linked to the consumer price index (CPI). Indeed, I’d go so far as to suggest there should be additional charges for a couple of other things. For instance, a change of address, especially to a new county, involves almost as much police work as a renewal, so why not charge the renewal fee and renew for a full five years? That would save a lot of police effort, and most shooters moving house would benefit.

Another stone-in-shoe niggle for the police is the issue of Section 11(6) permits, which allow non-certificate holders to borrow a shotgun at an approved clay shoot. At the moment these are free, but it would be reasonable to levy a charge equal to that for a grant or renewal.

If we’re going to give the police money for doing things that are now free, we’d expect something in return. After better training, the most important thing is much more rigorous adherence to the Home Office guidance on licensing. A number of forces ignore this when it suits them. The guidance isn’t perfect, but it’s not bad and applying it countrywide would remove the postcode lottery about which many certificate holders have justifiable cause for complaint.

For example, some forces insist that anyone who declares a medical condition should get a report from their GP and send it in with the application. There is no lawful requirement to do this but no simple way of stopping a recalcitrant force from trying. If the police want a report they should ask the applicant’s GP and pay any bill incurred. If they don’t foot the bill there’s nothing to stop them asking everyone for a GP report, as Durham (a force with a poor historic record) has been doing.

The much heralded e-commerce online application system should see the light of day, at least in pilot form, later this year. It’s intended to streamline and standardise the application process, but not all forces are signed up to it. Its adoption is expected to reduce costs.

Central focus
Standardising procedures between forces will also help. For a start, there should be one website for all, differing only in contact details. Some forces seem incapable of producing comprehensible online information, let alone keeping it up to date, so that would be better done centrally. Each force should show how well it is doing by publishing turnaround times and other information that would enable a meaningful comparison to be made between forces. That’s the sort of thing the ACPO Firearms and Explosive Licensing Working Group should be insisting on. It’s disappointing that so little effort is made to monitor how licensing departments are doing or to involve representatives of the shooting community in providing feedback.

If non-standard forms (some are appallingly badly written) are needed, we should ask why. If they really are needed they should be produced by the Home Office as part of the official process; if they are not needed they should be scrapped. There’s a huge amount of overlap and duplication between forces, which inflates costs for no public benefit.

Maybe some of the things I have suggested were going to appear as part of the licence fees deal, but I have an uncomfortable feeling many were not. Now there is to be a delay in implementing a fee increase maybe some further improvements can be incorporated.