Applications under the Firearms Acts: fees

Part of Policing and Crime Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 11:00 am ar 12 Ebrill 2016.

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Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Home Office) 11:00, 12 Ebrill 2016

These amendments would be a first step towards ending state subsidy of gun ownership. They would achieve that goal by ensuring that the full costs of licensing prohibited weapons, pistol clubs and museums are recovered.

Full cost recovery was a Labour manifesto pledge. It is a key objective of the Gun Control Network, and it is even stated as a policy goal in the explanatory notes accompanying the Bill. It would therefore appear that we are all united in wanting to achieve the same end. However, the Bill would bring the licensing fee regime of prohibited weapons, pistol clubs and museums in line with the fees regime that exists for standard section 1 firearms. That is a problem. I do not believe that the fees regime for section 1 firearms provides for full cost recovery, so I do not have the confidence that these proposals will achieve full cost recovery for the licences that they control.

The Bill deals with relatively narrow issues around licensing fees. At the moment, there is no system to recover costs from the licensing of prohibited weapons. Subsection (1) will allow authorities to set fees for very powerful, prohibited weapons, such as rocket launchers, which can only be obtained with the permission of the UK Defence Council. The fee will be variable and set by the Secretary of State by regulations, just as is presently the case for ordinary section 1 firearms.

Subsections (2) and (3) deal with the licensing of pistol clubs and museums respectively. At the moment, such fees are fixed under the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988, and the Secretary of State does not have the power to change them by secondary legislation. The Bill will bring the licensing system for those institutions in line with the licensing system for individual firearm owners by granting the Secretary of State the power to change the fees by regulation and by allowing variable fees. The Bill does not actually propose any change in the fees for pistol clubs or museums, and as a result the amount of money that these proposals involve is relatively small.

The Government estimate that these changes will bring in £570,000 a year for the Home Office, £78,000 for the English and Welsh police, £42,000 for the Scottish Government and £6,000 for Police Scotland. As it is said, every little helps. That increased revenue is welcome, as is the capacity for the Secretary of State to change the fees when the costs of licensing increase; but however welcome these changes are, the unfortunate truth is that these proposals will only make a small dent in the gun ownership subsidy that still persists in this country.

In the previous Parliament, the Labour party campaigned on full cost recovery. Fees for section 1 firearms had remained frozen for too long, and as a result the taxpayer was subsidising gun ownership to the tune of £17 million a year. That is insane. The police estimated that the cost of licensing a firearm was £196, yet the fee was stuck at £50. The taxpayer was paying three quarters of the cost of a gun owner getting a licence.

To be fair to the coalition Government, they did respond to the pressure. A working group was set up by the Home Office, the police and the British Association for Shooting and Conservation to consider the matter. After negotiations, it proposed that an £88 fee would be mutually acceptable to the police and shooters. The £88 fee was considerably short of the £196 that the police had independently estimated to be the true cost of licensing guns, but it was still a welcome increase. The £88 fee was finally introduced just before the general election. However, the fee was frozen for 14 years before it was finally increased. The £88 fee was arrived at only after negotiations with BASC and was not imposed following independent estimates.

Our amendments to the Bill would mandate the Secretary of State to set the cost of a licence for prohibited weapons, pistol clubs and museums at the full cost to the taxpayer. A legal requirement that the fee match the full cost would take some of the politics out of the process. The fee decisions would be based on an evidential analysis, conducted by the Home Office, of the true cost to the taxpayer. If the process proved to be successful for prohibited weapons, pistol clubs and museums, the Minister could consider extending it to section 1 firearms. This legislation could be a first step to true full cost recovery.

I will be interested to hear the Minister’s views on the issue. I urge him to accept amendments 228, 229 and 230. The taxpayer should not have to subsidise gun ownership, as it currently does. Our amendments would be a first step to bringing that unfairness to an end once and for all. Labour pushed hard for full cost recovery in the previous Parliament, and we have seen some movement from the Government on the issue. I urge the Minister to work with us, both by accepting our amendments today and by looking at the issue of section 1 licences in the future, to achieve what seems to be a realistic and realisable common goal.