My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.
The Question was as follows:
To ask Her Majesty's Government what consultations were held with the users of firearms and with the trade before the order, which raises fees for the grant and renewal of firearms and shotgun certificates with effect from 1st October, was made.
My Lords, advance notice was given to the Secretary of the Long Room Committee and the Director General of the National Farmers' Union on 6th August of the Government's intention to increase the fees with effect from 1st October 1976.
My Lords, while thanking the Minister for his reply, may I ask him whether he is aware that the Long Room Committee, which is the official committee representing the users of firearms for purposes of recreation and sport, and also the trade, were indeed notified during the Recess of these proposals and that they called a special meeting to consider the matter but, before they had time to meet, the order was made? I do not know whether the Minister calls that satisfactory consultation.Secondly, may I ask the Minister whether he is aware that, to take one example, the charge for the straightforward renewal of a firearms certificate was increased last year from £2·50 to £4·50, that it has now been increased from £4·50 to £10, which is a fourfold increase in the course of two years, and that it has been increased by 8,000 per cent. in the last nine years? May I therefore ask the Minister how such swingeing increases can be justified? Finally, is the Minister aware that these charges will bear very harshly on many thousands of users of firearms for recreation and sport, most of them of very limited means? May I therefore ask the Minister whether he will ask his right honourable friend to have fuller consultations and perhaps consult his colleague the Minister of Sport with a view to reconsidering the whole matter?
My Lords, the noble Lord has made three points. First, on his point regarding consultation, since it is the Government's policy to fix charges at a level which ensures the recovery of the cost of administering the certificate and registration procedures, I am afraid that the fees cannot be the subject of negotiation with those who have to pay them. Secondly. on the point which the noble Lord raised about the increase last year, he is quite right; the fees were increased last year. However, the increase then was at far too low a level to cover the cost of administering the procedure. Thirdly. on the point of whether the Government can reconsider the matter, I am afraid that the Government cannot reconsider it. To introduce a subsidy element would, in our view, be quite inappropriate.
My Lords, in view of the call by the Conservative Party for cuts in public expenditure, perhaps my noble friend would consider that he should maintain an economic price for such certificates and not allow his Department to be pressurised by pressure groups in the way that the National Rifle Association of the United States pressurise their Government?
My Lords, I have indicated that the Government could not change their decision. It is right, in our view, that the cost of administering the procedure should be met by those who use firearms of this kind. Therefore, for the reason that I gave earlier we cannot change our policy.
My Lords, can the noble Lord say what other licence fees are calculated on a similar basis?
My Lords, it is the intention of the Government to introduce a similar policy right across the board.
My Lords, while I understand this approach, may I ask whether it is not the important public policy factor here that everybody who has a firearm should be properly certificated or licensed, as the case may be? If the licence fee goes up too high, is not there a danger that there may be evasion?
My Lords, the question of evasion is a serious matter and the noble and learned Lord is quite right in saying that. Nevertheless, I think that in the present situation it would be quite wrong to introduce a subsidy element so far as these fees are concerned.
My Lords, the noble Lord has just said that the matter is a serious one. Does he really think that, if it was as serious as all that it was right to send a letter out to the trade on 6th August, knowing perfectly well that most of the people who were likely to be concerned in a big way would be on their holidays?
My Lords, I have pointed out that, although the letter went out on 6th August, the increase in fees did not take effect until 1st October.
My Lords, I was not speaking about the date when the increase took place; I was speaking about the date when consultation was wanted.
My Lords, with great respect, I have pointed out that it is not a question of consultation. In our view it would be quite wrong to make this a negotiable matter. So far as we are concerned, the position is quite clear: it is that the full cost of administering this scheme should be passed on to those who in fact want to make use of these certificates.
My Lords, how many shotgun licences are issued and, consequently, how much money is raised? Is the noble Lord seriously saying that it costs £10 to process every single shotgun licence, including renewal to those persons who already have one?
My Lords, on the first point, if the noble Earl would like to table a Question I will endeavour to answer it. On the second point, the level of the fee was decided after a representative sample of police forces had been asked to give us information on the cost of administering their procedures. It was on the basis of that response from the police forces that the Government made the decision which set the fee at the present level.
My Lords, I cannot find any comparison in regard to this matter, apart from motor vehicle taxation. But is the noble Lord aware that, when motor vehicle taxation licences were increased we did not hear noble Lords opposite shout about that, and yet more people use motor vehicles in this country than use firearms?
My Lords, on the question of the time for consultation, is it not the case that while the Long Room Committee and the trade were notified of the proposals on 5th August and, as the Minister has said, the order does not come into effect until 1st October, in fact the order was made at the beginning of September and therefore the time for consultation was not two months but one, and that during the Recess?
My Lords, I am aware of that point, which has been made by a number of correspondents. I have endeavoured to point out that this is not a matter for consultation. Consultation implies that one is prepared to change one's policy in the final analysis, but that is inappropriate when one is considering a policy which is designed to ensure that the full costs of administering the scheme are passed on to those who in fact use the certificate procedure.
My Lords, is the noble Lord telling us that the cost of issuing a firearm certificate is £10?
My Lords, I was saying that the level of licence fees which has now been established is designed to cover the cost of administering the scheme.
My Lords, if the cost of administration is an important matter in the view of the Government, will they consider extending the period of validity of firearm certificates and shotgun certificates?
My Lords, the present period is in fact fixed by legislation.
My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether there is any evidence to support the suggestion made from the other side of the House that the people who own shotguns and shoot grouse are people of limited means?