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Plymouth Shootings

Volume 728: debated on Tuesday 21 February 2023

Before we come to the statement, I wish to make it clear that, given the issues of national importance raised by the wider implications of the case before us, I am waiving the sub judice resolution regarding any outstanding proceedings.

With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will make a statement about the shootings in Plymouth in August 2021.

On 12 August 2021 in Keyham, Plymouth, Jake Davison shot and killed five people, wounded two others and took his own life. The deceased victims were the perpetrator’s mother, Maxine Davison, 51; three-year-old Sophie Martyn and her father Lee Martyn, 43; Stephen Washington, 59; and Kate Shepherd, 66. This was a truly horrific incident and a tragic loss of life.

The jury to the inquest into those deaths returned their findings of unlawful killings yesterday afternoon. Our thoughts and prayers go out once again to the families and friends of the victims, and to the whole community in Keyham. I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) for his tireless campaigning since the tragedy on behalf of the Keyham community and the families.

It is anticipated that the coroner will shortly issue a prevention of future deaths report in which further recommendations are likely to be made. If, as expected, the Home Office receives such a report, we will substantively respond to it—as well as to the recommendations made by the Independent Office for Police Conduct, which has conducted an investigation into the shootings, and to a separate inquiry by the Scottish Affairs Committee—within 60 days of receiving it.

The Government keep firearms licensing under review to safeguard against abuse and prevent risk to public safety. In the immediate aftermath of the shootings in Plymouth, the then Home Secretary asked all police forces to urgently review their firearms licensing practices. The review found that, collectively, a total of 6,434 firearms and shotgun licences were surrendered, seized, revoked or refused over the previous 12-month period across England, Wales and Scotland. Of those licences, a total of 908 were subsequently returned or reissued following further checks or appeals decided by the courts. As a result of the review of returned licences, the original decision was overturned in eight cases and the licences have been re-surrendered or revoked. I hope that those findings provide reassurance that the police have put in place robust processes for issuing and reviewing firearms and shotgun licences.

That does not mean that there is any complacency following those awful events. Strengthened controls were subsequently issued through statutory guidance in October 2021—a few months after this awful incident—so that the police make sure that people are medically fit to receive a licence and that full medical checks have been undertaken, which, of course, did not happen in this case. A new digital marker system to flag firearms owners to GPs is also currently being introduced.

The statutory guidance draws on previous lessons learned and will ensure better consistency across police firearms licensing departments. It means that that no one will be given a firearms licence unless their doctor has expressly confirmed to the police whether they have any relevant medical conditions, including in relation to their mental health. The statutory guidance makes it clear that police can now undertake a wide range of checks to assess a person’s suitability depending on the individual case, including social media checks, financial checks, interviews with and background checks on relatives or associates, and checks relating to domestic violence or public protection units.

The College of Policing has refreshed its authorised professional practice on firearms licensing. A consultation was launched about a month ago, on 12 January, and it will conclude on 10 March. I encourage Members to respond to that consultation. His Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire & rescue services has announced that it will be undertaking a thematic review of forces’ arrangements in respect of firearms licensing in 2024-25.

Devon and Cornwall police have assured the IOPC that changes have been made following its recent recommendations, but depending on what the coroner recommends shortly, I am currently minded to ask the inspectorate to look specifically at the arrangements that Devon and Cornwall have in place for firearms licensing and to confirm their suitability. The Home Office is also currently taking forward a review of fees that can be charged for firearms licences or certificates by police forces—we expect to consult later this year—to make sure that forces have enough resources to conduct those important checks.

We must ensure that our controls on firearms are as robust as possible, and that we learn the lessons from the tragic deaths in Keyham and in Scotland. We therefore await with keen interest the coroner’s anticipated prevention of future deaths report. As I have said, we will respond to that report, to the recent report by the Scottish Affairs Committee following the shootings in Skye, and to the IOPC report within 60 days of receiving the last of those three reports, which will be the coroner’s report. We will respond substantively to the recommendations in all three.

I commit today that any further changes needed to protect the public will be made. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement.

Today we mourn Sophie Martyn, who was only three, Lee Martyn, Stephen Washington, Kate Shepherd and Maxine Davison. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) for his work. I know that he has been affected very deeply, as has his community.

The juror’s conclusions are searing and the IOPC report damning. There was “catastrophic failure” at Devon and Cornwall police in the individual decisions taken, in the appalling lack of supervision, training and oversight, and in the rules themselves. There is no automatic right to bear arms in this country; there is no right to be given the benefit of the doubt.

After Dunblane, firearms units were to be given as much training and guidance as possible, yet Devon and Cornwall police had no formal training for two decades. The firearms licensing supervisor told the court that he had done a two-day training course in 1998 but nothing else until 2020. How could it possibly be that the person in charge of deciding whether someone was safe with a gun was not even trained on how to use the risk manual? That casual approach to risk was dangerous and proved to be fatally flawed.

The last HMIC inspection on firearms was eight years ago in 2015. I am glad that the Minister has told us that the next one will be completed in 2024-25, but why do we need to wait a year? Can it not be brought forward? The 2015 inspection raised concerns that police force practice on licensing was inconsistent, but the public consultation on statutory guidance started only in 2019. The Government failed to respond to the consultation. Jake Davison used his licensed weapon to kill five people in 2021. Since the Keyham shooting, Devon and Cornwall police now reject 6% of gun applications, but the national average across England is only 3%. It is terrifying to think that other pump-action shotguns could be in the wrong hands.

Jake Davison’s child and teenage history should have triggered far more questions and expert advice. There was information about him that was never revealed. The mental health marker is finally being introduced, but it is in statutory guidance rather than a legal duty, and experts have raised concerns about the new system. Is the Minister aware of those concerns, and is he satisfied with the new marker? What are the Government’s plans to ensure that there is a proactive approach to risk management on firearms licensing? How will the Minister ensure that statutory guidance is followed by police forces and that they are held to account on it?

Jake Davison was an incel. The online radicalisation of young men has been overlooked for far too long. In the past year, there were 77 referrals to Prevent for incel, and 154 referrals for potentially planning or thinking about a school massacre. Will the Minister explain whether there is a flag on Prevent systems to notify the police if someone referred to Prevent has a gun licence? What action are the Government taking to tackle misogynist extremism, because their watering down of the Online Safety Bill means that misogynists and incel gangs will continue to proliferate online? The current counter-extremism strategy is eight years out of date. When will the Government update the strategy? Why does the Minister not accept the IOPC’s recommendations in full? I understand he is waiting 60 days for other pieces of work to be concluded, but he could accept the IOPC’s sensible recommendations in full today.

The new chief constable of Devon and Cornwall police has called for legislation on firearms licensing. Does the Minister agree? We are alert to concerns about pump-action shotguns in homes. What is the Home Office view on that? Labour in government will initiate a review of gun licensing laws. We must learn the lessons so that what happened in Keyham can never happen again. Nothing else will do.

I thank the shadow Minister for her comments and her questions. I will try and answer as many as I can, but I am sure we will discuss this again in the future.

On the HMICFRS thematic inspection, that is programmed as I set out. The point I made about Devon and Cornwall specifically is that, subject to the coroner’s recommendations, I will be asking them to do that inspection a lot sooner—essentially I will be asking whether they are willing to do it immediately—to make sure of the assurances that Devon and Cornwall have given to the IOPC that they have indeed already implemented all the recommendations. That is something that needs to happen straight away and, subject to the coroner’s report and what that might have to say about it, I will be writing to HMICFRS on that basis shortly.

On concerns about the new markers being placed on files, I commit that our response to the three reports will address the need for a proactive approach to risk management and for legislation in this area. It is important to respond to all three together, rather than piecemeal, and I do not think 60 days is too long to wait for that. I have been clear with colleagues that we need to respond substantively within 60 days of the coroner’s report, which is expected shortly.

I completely agree with the shadow Minister’s point that people with Davison’s background should not receive firearms licences. Indeed, under the laws in place at the time, he should not have received a firearms licence. The IOPC in its recent report identified two or three individuals within the Devon and Cornwall force who the IOPC considered guilty of misconduct by wrongly authorising the issue of that licence, which Davison should never have received, even under the regulations as they stood in 2018 and in 2020.

In relation to the question about radicalisation, if someone has been referred into Prevent, and there is any substantive evidence of radicalisation, it is reasonable that that should be known to the police in making decisions about firearms licences. I will undertake to confirm that that is the case. If it is not the case, I will see what steps can be taken to ensure there is a link between the Prevent database and checks performed by firearms officers.

There is a lot of material to cover. The substantive response that the Government will bring forward in approximately two months’ time will answer all the questions and more, and no doubt there will be a statement to the House on the occasion of presenting that.

May I welcome the Minister’s suggestion that there be an IOPC investigation of Devon and Cornwall’s operation of firearm regulations? I think I am right in saying that they have the largest number of licences within their territory. If they have not been getting it right, we need some reassurance that they are. I also welcome the Minister’s underlining of the fact that this particular person should not have received his firearms back even under the existing regulations. It was a misapplication of those regulations that resulted in the situation we find ourselves in.

Having said that, I am sure the Minister will accept—he will have had the same experience as me—that firearms legislation is in fact an accretion of policies over the years, and it has become a bit of a thicket for us all to navigate. We should have a look at some kind of review overall, and in particular at the critical role the medical profession play in general community safety. What more does the Minister think we can do to impress upon that profession the duty they have, not just to the community more widely, but to the wider body of those who shoot and operate firearms for work purposes or leisure purposes? The profession should not stand in the way of that process. We often found medics who would refuse to issue certification to people or would charge excessive fees for certification, and who were therefore not fully participating in the system. Given that this case proves the crucial nature of their assessment to all our safety, what more does the Minister think we can do to impress that on the medical profession?

When my right hon. Friend was in this role, I know he met the families of the victims. I completely agree with his points about the medical profession. I echo his call for the medical profession to be proactive when approached by the police in relation to firearms licences and to make full disclosures in consultation with their patients. Where they see a flag that is of concern to them, they should proactively contact the police. As this tragic case shows, there can be devastating consequences for the public where somebody who should not have a gun has one. There is an ethical and moral duty on the medical profession that they owe to society as a whole, as well as to their patient as an individual. I strongly urge GPs and other medical professionals to keep that wider moral duty firmly in mind and to co-operate with the police on these issues.

I am angry and our community is angry. We are still hurting and grieving for those we lost, but also feeling for those who were shot and survived. Confidence in Devon and Cornwall police has been badly shaken by the catalogue of catastrophic failures that led up to this tragedy. We have been failed locally by our police, but nationally we are also being failed by gun laws that need to be brought up to date. The families of the victims and those who survived want to see changes: a review of gun laws to bring them up to date and to make them 21st-century; an urgent review of gun licensing, which has failed us badly, and not just in Devon and Cornwall but for every gun licensing authority in the country; a ban on keeping pump-action weapons in someone’s home with exceptions for farmers and pest controllers; a national incel strategy to deal with this growing toxic problem; training for firearms officers nationwide; and, importantly, full cost recovery, so that the police have the resources to process applications properly. Will the Minister agree to meet me and the families so that they can impress upon him the strength of their loss, but also the strength and determination in Plymouth to make sure there will be comprehensive changes to our gun laws to ensure that no other community anywhere in the country will have to go through what we have in Plymouth?

I will meet the hon. Member and the families of the victims, as I think my predecessor has done, to listen to their concerns directly and to make sure their voice is heard in government. He raised a number of points in his question. As I said to the shadow Minister, the response we intend to produce shortly should address the points that he outlined. Clearly the families may have points that they would like to add that we can take into account, so I suggest we have that meeting in the next month or so, so that their views can feed in to the comprehensive response I have described. We intend to consult on the specific question of fees and ensuring full cost recovery so that police forces get the money it costs them to run these licensing arrangements over the summer or early autumn as quickly as possible. I can make that commitment now.

I pay my own tribute to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), who has done outstanding work on this issue since this appalling event in 2021. I thank the Minister for his statement, and for the support that the Home Office has given to the people of Plymouth in the aftermath of this tragedy. I welcome the review that the Minister has talked about today, but I ask him not to close his mind to a thorough review of the law in relation to firearms. I take the point that some of that law is quite ancient, and needs to be brought together and looked at in the light of internet influences, as well as medical conditions.

Finally, Madam Deputy Speaker—thank you for being kind to me—can I ask whether the Minister has seen the excellent report produced by Plymouth’s violence against women and girls commission, which tries to tackle some of these wider cultural issues from the bottom up? Has he seen it, and will he commend Plymouth City Council on continuing to take that work forward?

I echo my hon. Friend’s tribute to the families of the victims, who have shown extraordinary bravery in the way they have handled this situation and advocated for change during what have obviously been very difficult circumstances for them. We will obviously consider any recommended changes to the law that may follow from the three reports we are going to be considering.

I am aware of the excellent work led by Plymouth City Councillor Rebecca Smith on a VAWG strategy designed to combat these kinds of issues. When my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins) was Minister for Safeguarding, she visited Plymouth together with Councillor Smith to discuss her excellent report, and I commend the approach that Councillor Smith has developed in Plymouth to other local authorities around the country.

My thoughts, of course, are with the families and the victims, and I commend the sterling work that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) has done on this issue.

I wrote to one of the Minister’s predecessors, the right hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), in 2020, asking for medical markers to be put on records and for there to be a review of fees, both the fees that GPs were charging and those that police forces were able to charge. The correspondence I got back said that work was being done on the issue, but clearly work was not done on it quick enough. What is important is not just the 60 days in which the Minister will respond but having some indication of a timetable of implementation for some of these changes, particularly a statutory footing for that medical marker. I am worried that, unless that marker is statutory and it is part of the NHS contract that GPs have to report it, enforcement will be weak.

I cannot speak for my predecessor, but on the point about urgency, a number of steps have already been taken. The updated authorised professional practice guidance from the College of Policing is out for consultation now; that consultation started in January, and will close in March. Updated statutory guidance was issued in October 2021 ensuring that there must be medical checks in every single case.

On the point about medical markers, those markers are being fully rolled out as we speak, so that is in hand. As I said, I can commit to a consultation on the question of fees over the summer or in early autumn, with the objective of ensuring full cost recovery. Regarding the response to the recommendations, I think that 60 days following the coroner’s report is a good timetable for a response. That will obviously contain a proposed implementation timetable, but the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) and others can be assured that I want to get any changes needed—I am sure there will be changes—implemented as a matter of urgency, for obvious reasons.

As my right hon. Friend looks to review the licensing arrangements for Devon and Cornwall police, can he ensure that those arrangements accurately reflect the vast rural area that the force covers? We have already heard that the area has a high level of gun ownership, linked to those remote farms that require them for work, and there is concern that there is already a backlog in the renewals system and that the area’s rurality is not adequately reflected in the resources that the force receives.

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. Obviously, Devon and Cornwall is a large geographical area. I understand that more resources are now being deployed into firearms licensing by Devon and Cornwall police, partly following this awful incident, but partly because there are quite large backlogs in Devon and Cornwall specifically for firearms licensing. However, notwithstanding the rurality of Devon and Cornwall, or indeed many other parts of the country, we cannot have different or lower standards anywhere. I know that that was not what my hon. Friend was suggesting, but we need to make sure that standards are high everywhere across the country.

In relation to the resource question more generally, there is an intention to consult shortly on the police funding formula. One of the inputs into that consultation will be rurality, so that adequate resources are given to more rural forces to reflect the additional costs that they very often face.

The inquest concluded that the shootings in Plymouth resulted from a “catastrophic failure”. The responsibility lies entirely with the murderer—I do not want to repeat his name—but the firearms licensing department was not given the resources that it needed. The police and crime commissioner in Devon and Cornwall has admitted as much, and has said that

“I have made significant funding available to improve the Devon and Cornwall Police’s firearms licensing department”

—this, obviously, since the inquest. What conversations has the Minister had with the police and crime commissioner in Devon and Cornwall about those findings, and what additional changes would he like to see in the oversight of Devon and Cornwall police?

I have had extensive discussions on the question of firearms licensing, both inside the Home Office and with policing, including PCCs. As I said in answer to the previous question, following this awful incident, extra resources have now been dedicated to firearms licensing inside Devon and Cornwall, and of course, police forces up and down the country will have record numbers of police officers by the end of next month.

As for changes to practice, I would like to receive the third of those three reports—the first being the Scottish Affairs Committee report, the second being the IOPC report, and the third being the anticipated coroner’s prevention of future deaths report—and respond to their recommendations in the round within 60 days, as I have committed to already. I would expect a number of changes to be proposed in response to those recommendations, applying not just to Devon and Cornwall but to policing more widely. As I also said earlier, the IOPC has already made specific recommendations directed at Devon and Cornwall. Devon and Cornwall police have assured the IOPC that those proposed changes have been implemented, but I am minded to ask HMIC to check up specifically on that shortly.

I pay tribute to the whole community of Keyham, and particularly to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on his work on this since it happened. There are three Cornish MPs in the Chamber today, but I know that I speak for all six of us and for everybody west of the Tamar. He will know that we stand shoulder to shoulder with his community, throughout this ordeal and going forward.

It was good to see the chief constable of Devon and Cornwall police, Will Kerr—although recently appointed—apologise for the force’s failings and take accountability for what has happened. He has called for legislation in this area. I echo what everybody has said about the medical markers and making sure that we have the right balance in legislation, but is there an opportunity to consider a national unit to standardise licensing, processing and decision making, in order to help local police forces with their resources?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. Nationally consistent standards are extremely important: we need to make sure that standards are equally high across the entire country. That is part of the reason why the College of Policing is currently consulting on updated authorised professional practice to make sure those standards are clear, and if further changes are necessary, they will obviously be introduced.

The other point that is very important is to make sure that the College of Policing also introduces standardised training—I think the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), referred to that point in her questions—and that is also in hand, in order to make sure that everybody up and down the country has received proper training. That was clearly a failing in Devon and Cornwall, and we need to make sure it does not happen again anywhere.

Today will be a difficult day for the community in Keyham, and my thoughts are with them, but I am not reassured by the Government’s response, particularly around mental health but also for victims of domestic violence and their former partners. I have a constituent who is in hiding right now because her former partner has had his firearms returned to him. What reassurance can the Minister give that this incident will be the last, and that my constituent will also be safe?

Everyone’s constituents, including the hon. Lady’s, are entitled to feel safe. As the shadow Minister said, firearms licences are not a right, and it is important that we think very carefully before issuing anyone with such a licence. As I said, we will respond comprehensively to the recommendations in these three reports. I know that that will include consideration of domestic abuse and domestic violence, which are clearly indicators of substantially increased risk, and I would be happy to discuss those recommendations as soon as they come out with the hon. Lady and her constituent if she would like to do so.

Is it correct, as has been reported, that in this tragic case, the murderer’s mother appealed to the police to remove the returned firearm from him and was ignored? If that is true, is it not also the case that no change in any licensing system will be able to compensate for that level of bungling incompetence?

I am afraid to say that very bad decisions—in fact, wrong decisions—were made in this case. As the former policing Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) said, the wrong decisions were taken under the guidance in force both in 2018, when the licence was first granted, and two or three years later, when the gun was confiscated and then returned. The IOPC has said that very clearly, and it has said that two or three officers of Devon and Cornwall police made the wrong decision at the time. My right hon. Friend is right to say that a change of guidance would not have helped, because the wrong decisions were made under the guidance at the time. However, we need to make sure that the guidance is robust and comprehensive and that training is comprehensive. It is with those purposes in mind that we will respond to the three reports in 60 days or so.