The Home Office consultation on firearms licensing is an unacceptable muddle, says David Frost. Here he outlines the shooting community's views on it.
Firearms licensing has never been satisfactory, but it became an even bigger mess in April 2016 when the Home Office introduced new medical requirements. These were agreed between the Home Office, British Medical Association, shooting organisations and the police. The BMA broke ranks almost immediately and some police forces were not far behind.
The effect this will be having on you depends on where you live. Your police force may be following the official guidance, in which case you will not be much inconvenienced by the new procedure, unless your GP is charging for a medical report. Half a dozen forces have decided to ignore the guidance and have introduced their own procedures, some of which are of dubious legality. Tough luck if you live in one of these areas because you will have to knuckle under if you want a certificate. If you are not treated satisfactorily, I would advise that you complain to your police and crime commissioner, who will need your support in next year’s nationwide election for these positions. The biggest single problem in firearms licensing is certificate holders who get a lousy service and don’t complain.
Attitude to lawful firearms ownership
The department in the Home Office that deals with this is the Serious Violence Unit of the weapons policy team. What does that tell you about their attitude to lawful firearms ownership? I do, however, have some sympathy for the Home Office, which has been badly let down by the BMA and police. Rather than tell police forces to act in accordance with the agreed policy, the National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC) has largely washed its hands of the issue in a singularly feeble failure of leadership. And the actions of some GPs in claiming conscientious objection could be contrary to the General Medical Council’s advice on good practice.
In an effort to “improve” matters, the Home Office issued a new draft guidance in July. The police, rather than concentrate on providing a fair, effective and efficient service, appear to be looking for ways to make the whole process more intrusive, time-consuming and expensive, have clearly influenced this advice. A vapid letter from Nick Hurd, then the policing minister, preceded these proposals and expressed a pious and probably unachievable promise to ensure any GP fees are reasonable.
The main shooting organisations were outraged. Three — the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), the Countryside Alliance (CA) and the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation (NGO), have responded publicly to the consultation. The British Shooting Sports Council (BSSC), the umbrella body for most shooting organisations, has also responded but has not yet published its response. Begs the question: what has your shooting organisation done for you in these troubled times?
First off the mark was the CA. Its response followed the Home Office pro forma, which limits comments on any one topic to 150 words — a typical civil service way of curbing comment and discussion. Pithily, the CA covered the essential points. The only point it found in favour of was that the police, not the applicant should contact the GP. You can get a flavour of the overall tone from these comments: “The proposed system is fundamentally flawed”; “We do not believe that this guidance [has] a sound evidential basis”; “The new guidance seems to be disproportionately weighted against the granting of certificates”; “The proposals are unbalanced and overly burdensome”.
BASC’s well researched comments run to 14 pages and the overall message is similar to that of the CA: “The certificate holder is placed in a position where he/she is constantly disadvantaged”; “The whole document lacks any proportionality”; “The document is not evidence led”; “The shooting community is likely to be burdened with a £48m-plus bill”.
Home Office consultation on firearms licensing
The NGO (to whose submission I made a small contribution) made a narrative response running to seven pages and covering a wide range of points about the poor quality of the licensing service. Part of the Home Office’s justification for changing the medical arrangements arises from the 2015 report into firearms licensing by the then Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC). The NGO highlights other important HMIC recommendations about which the Home Office has done nothing. Notably, training of licensing staff, on which HMIC has commented adversely in every report, is not addressed in the proposal — HMIC found good practice the exception, but the proposals do not address that either, nor do they address the poor standard of service experienced by many certificate holders. The NGO would like to see an independent firearms licensing authority.
You can get a flavour of the NGO’s views from the tone of some of its comments: “Firearms licensing has become a postcode lottery”; “The proposal will not resolve the appalling situation”; “A lack of leadership by [NPCC] has made matters worse”; “Most of the proposed additional checks by the police go far beyond public safety needs”; “We are concerned about the implications of paragraph 4.8, parts of which are tantamount to blackmail”; “The impact assessment is very vague as to the benefit of the proposals”.
Have you seen your doctor recently? If you have, I do hope it wasn’t for anything significant. I don’t know about you, but…
Nick Hurd’s letter was a masterpiece of ministerial gobbledygook. “I have listened carefully to the concerns you raised”. Really? “The police have told me this is necessary”. You’ve been listening to the wrong people. “I would hope that many shooters will regard the medical changes contained in the draft statutory guidance as beneficial”. You must be joking.
The upheavals in Westminster have swept Hurd away. Hurd promised a meeting with all the shooting organisations, and I hope a successor will do the same. There’s an urgent need for the minister and his staff to listen to the people who will really be affected by the mess that the Home Office proposes to introduce.