Motion to Consider
My Lords, the safe use of legal firearms is a priority for this Government. We remain committed to strengthening the effectiveness of the firearms licensing regime as necessary in order to protect people from harm. We introduced provisions in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 to ensure that people with suspended sentences of between three months and three years are prohibited from possessing a firearm. The prohibition includes antique firearms and is for five years from the second day after sentence. We took this action in response to a recommendation which was made by the Home Affairs Committee in 2010. The committee recommended that persons with suspended sentences should be prohibited from possessing firearms in the same way as those who have served custodial sentences are so prohibited. The provision, which amends Section 21 of the Firearms Act 1968, came into effect earlier this month.
It was always the Government’s intention that those individuals prohibited from possessing a firearm by virtue of being subject to a suspended sentence should have the right to apply to a court to remove the prohibition. Unfortunately, this right was not included in the original provision, which is why we are seeking an amendment now. As soon as the legislation is amended, any person affected by the prohibition will be able to apply to the Crown Court, or in Scotland to the sheriff, for its removal. It is therefore important that the provision is implemented in the shortest time possible. I commend the order to the House.
My Lords, it feels like only yesterday that we had long and ongoing discussions about the anti-social behaviour Bill, and yet here we are, back already with an amendment to it. Obviously the amendment is necessary and I am grateful to the Minister for his candour in admitting that it was a mistake at the time which needs to be rectified. That is most helpful.
The order is limited, but the Minister will recall the wider discussions we had on this issue when we debated it. I was pleased to hear him say that the Government are committed to improving the system. He knows that we were critical of these clauses, and while we welcomed the changes, we did not think that they went far enough. This order is about the appeal process, which was something that was of concern to us when we looked at the granting of certificates and licences. We were critical of the piecemeal approach to making changes, and he will recall the discussions we had at the time. One of our strongest criticisms around the issue of appeals was in the area of domestic violence. We were disappointed when the Government rejected our amendment to provide that where there was substantiated evidence of a history of domestic violence, there should be a presumption against having a firearms certificate or a shotgun licence unless there are grounds for exemption.
We raised this issue because of evidence presented to the IPCC, and then set out in its report, on the appalling and tragic death of Mrs McGoldrick by Michael Atherton. It was quite clear that one of the reasons that Atherton was able to hold a legal firearm was because of flaws in the decision-making process in that, as the IPCC put it, the fears of an appeal were placed above the evidence of domestic abuse. Given all the problems such as his drinking and his violence, the report also said that his certificates were reviewed and a final warning letter was sent that,
“advised him that any further reports indicating any form of irresponsible or irrational or uncontrollable behaviour would result in the immediate revocation of his certificates”.
They were not taken away then because of the fear about his ability to appeal and now we are discussing appeals again today.
The Minister will realise why we put that amendment forward at the time. It concerned situations where there was evidence of domestic violence. At present, there, have to be convictions, and even then the relevant action is not possible. However, today we found out from police forces across the country through a freedom of information request that community resolutions—which should be used only for low-level crime such as graffiti—have gone up from around 1,300 in 2009 to more than 3,000 now in cases of domestic abuse. As there has not been a caution or prosecution, this is not recorded anywhere. Our great fear is that if people have committed an act of domestic abuse or domestic violence and it has not gone to the courts, with the police deciding, “We can sort this out between us”, it is not recorded in any way so when the police come to look at an application for a firearm, the evidence they need is not available. Our proposed amendment to the Bill would have allowed the evidence of a community resolution to be taken into account. That is not now available. It is quite clear that domestic violence needs to be a criminal offence and not just something that can be dealt with by community resolutions.
I have some questions for the noble Lord. We support the order. We think it is right but that it opens up deeper and wider issues. In the light of the IPCC comments, what assessment has been made of the right of appeal? What assessments have been made of the impact of the appeal process on a police force’s decision to issue a certificate or a licence for a firearm? Does this order mean there will be any further guidance to police in relation to the issuing of certificates and appeals? My next point is key. Given all my points about community resolutions, such as not prosecuting and cases being disposed of but not recorded, does the Minister think that the use of community resolutions in domestic violence cases makes it more likely that those with a history of domestic violence, but not a conviction or caution for it, could more easily obtain a legal firearm? I think that is a very serious point.
We are saying to the Minister that, in looking at appeals, there needs to be a much wider consideration of the process, the place and the implications of the process of appeal in the decision to grant licences. Clearly sometimes it is inappropriate, as it was in the case of Michael Atherton, who then murdered his former partner. We support the order but hope the noble Lord can say that the Government are going to reconsider the impact of the appeals process on decision-making and that the police should be able to take into account the evidence we asked for, not just convictions, as is currently the case.
I thank the noble Baroness for her contribution in debate to the passage of this order. I know exactly the feeling which lies behind her comments and I think that, to a very large extent, there is some common ground between us. Certainly, both of us would view domestic violence and domestic abuse as being totally wrong, whoever the perpetrator.
This issue has moved up the political agenda. We should acknowledge that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, Theresa May, has talked frequently on it. The Prime Minister made a speech last week in which he mentioned it. The shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, has similarly pointed out the importance of tackling domestic abuse and domestic violence. I understand that. This order is not directed solely at domestic violence cases; it is a general order that enables people who have been disbarred from having a licence because of a caution or, as the law provides, a conviction, to apply for removal of the prohibition. I am sure that the noble Baroness in her support for the order does not want to remove the right of appeal from people in such circumstances.
The noble Baroness asked—and it is a fair question—whether the increase in community resolutions to deal with domestic violence will mean that more perpetrators of domestic violence are able to get firearms licences. The Government have taken decisive steps to ensure that community resolutions are used only in those cases where they are suitable. There must be cases where such resolution is suitable. We have also strengthened the way in which domestic violence is considered in relation to firearms licensing applications. New guidance was published in July last year. It is clear that evidence falling short of a conviction, which would include a community resolution, can be taken into account when deciding on suitability for a licence.
I cannot categorically say that, but the advice I have is that community resolution would be included. Of course, I am prepared to write to the noble Baroness; it is difficult when we are at the end of a session like this to give proper advice to her.
Each case must be assessed on its merits. I have always said that it is important that police discretion should lie at the bottom of these issues. Evidence of domestic violence will generally indicate that a person should not be permitted to possess a firearm. I say here on the record that that is the Government’s position. We have provided guidance on the updated provisions in a Home Office circular. Authorised professional practice on firearms licensing has been brought in by the College of Policing to complement the Home Office guidance and to ensure consistency and high standards across police firearms licensing departments. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary will also conduct an inspection of firearms licensing departments in early 2015.
I have before me details of some cases which I do not think will necessarily add to the debate this evening, but if I can write to the noble Baroness, I will do so. I could include, for example, the details of the Atherton case and show how that fits into the context of these orders. As we know, domestic violence is already covered by a whole range of criminal offences. The question that I think lies at the heart of the noble Baroness’s challenge is whether there should be specific mention in law of domestic violence. We need to think very carefully about that because the graduation between violence and domestic violence is often a difficult one. The established law provides for the police to prosecute in domestic violence cases.
I do not wish to detain the Committee and I am particularly grateful for the Minister’s offer to write to me. I know it is difficult; I said to him earlier that I wanted to raise the issue and I am grateful he has allowed me to do so. From what he said there does not seem to be a mile between us on this, but the difference is that we are suggesting that a conviction for domestic violence should lead to a presumption against being able to obtain a weapon. He says that will be covered in guidance, but the IPCC was quite clear that the discretion the police had made them very nervous about rejecting a licence, even in the case of Michael Atherton, because the appeals process can be challenging and is very expensive. I will not pursue it today, but if, when he writes to me, he can look at whether the guidance that now exists would address the failures in the Atherton case, that would be very helpful. I would be grateful if he could do that.
I thank the noble Baroness for that. It is important to understand that the order we are considering is about an appeal to a court—the Crown Court in the case of England or the Sheriff Court in the case of Scotland. It is important not to conflate that with the police’s view of whether they should grant a licence for another situation where there is suspicion of domestic violence. I understand that the noble Baroness wished to raise it, but it is a slightly different issue. It is important not to conflate the purpose of this order with the broader question of how we tackle domestic violence. I beg to move that the order be considered.
Committee adjourned at 7.56 pm.