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Underperforming in firearms licensing: why should we continue to fund failure?

The chaos in firearms licensing has little to do with Covid or the cost of living — some forces have been allowed to underperform for years, says Alasdair Mitchell

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For some people, working from home has become shirking from home. I have highlighted aspects of this before (working from home). What we are seeing is too many senior public sector managers wanting to spend more time with their Pelotons and allowing customer service to slide. Just look at the chaos in firearms licensing.

The consequences of the ongoing firearms licensing shambles in Northern Ireland and parts of England and Wales are starting to feed through. BASC has reported an 8% decline in certificate holders over two years. Police Scotland, it should be noted, seem to be doing a much better job than some of their counterparts elsewhere in the UK.

One of my own grandsons has just given up on waiting for his application for a firearms certificate to be processed. For youngsters, even six months seems an eternity. A member of my wildfowling club, who has held a shotgun certificate for years, has been waiting more than a year for his application for a firearms certificate to be looked at. (Read what are the latest waiting times for shotgun and firearms certificates?)

I am not blaming the staff of firearms departments. They usually want to provide a good service. Unfortunately, their work may be given low priority by certain forces. They don’t always get enough training or support. Yet they know that if somebody they entrust with firearms later turns out to be a danger to the public, they stand to be hung out to dry by their own force.

No, the problems with firearms licensing must be laid at the door of certain chief constables. There is an old army saying: “There are no bad soldiers, only good or bad officers.” Some forces provide an efficient, timely and cost-effective licensing service, but others are dire.

And don’t give me excuses like COVID-19, the cost of living crisis, IT glitches, climate change or whatever. Some, like Durham, have been underperforming for years. Cumbria used to be good, but has now suspended grants until next year. Gwent is said to be awful. In Northern Ireland, the dreadful situation has been formally declared a critical incident, but nobody knows how the police plan to solve it.

The grim fact is that there doesn’t seem to be any way of holding errant chief constables to account if they decide to neglect their duty. Forget democratic oversight; for politicians, shooting is a toxic issue. The public recoil from any suggestion that certificate processing should be made ‘smoother’, because they have been led to believe that onerous licensing is the reason why gun crime is so low. Yet the reality is that the current chaos actually undermines public safety.

Furthermore, the underlying problem goes far wider than firearms licensing. Look at GPs. Or the DVLA. Or HM Land Registry. And lack of money isn’t the issue. A lot of GPs work part-time — and that must be partly because they can afford to do so.

HM Passport Office was another basket case, but got its act together after being threatened with privatisation. Could that, perhaps, provide an example for firearms licensing? Where a force is failing, why not simply outsource the licensing service to the private sector, or to another police force that has shown itself to be competent? Why should we continue to fund failure?