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Crime: Firearms

Volume 778: debated on Thursday 9 February 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of recent seizures, what is their estimate of (1) the number of illegal firearms in circulation, and (2) the percentage of firearms illegally imported into the United Kingdom that have been seized in the last year.

My Lords, I draw attention to my policing interests and beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order paper.

My Lords, offences involving firearms, excluding air weapons, have fallen by 31% since July 2010. The National Ballistics Intelligence Service regularly assesses the volume of illegal firearms in the UK, but this information is operationally sensitive and is not suitable for release. The National Crime Agency and the police continue to conduct specific operations to disrupt the threats posed by illegal firearms.

My Lords, I am grateful for the Answer given by the Minister and intrigued by the fact that on 21 November, in response to another Question on this point asked by my noble friend Lord Rosser, she said:

“Without doing the maths, I cannot give the noble Lord the figures off the top of my head. However, I will certainly write to him with accurate figures”.—[Official Report, 21/11/16; col. 1724.]

I assume from the Answer she has just given that she cannot share the figures that she wrote to my noble friend. Can I put it to her that, if there were 126 illegal arms seized in 2014-15—these are the figures she gave on 21 November—445 seized in 2015-16 and 800 in just four weeks as a result of this joint exercise by the counterterrorism police and the National Crime Agency, this is a situation in which there is an explosion of the problem of illegal firearms and that the Government should do a great deal more?

What the noble Lord points out is not an explosion in the problem but a revelation in the solution, because that four-week operation showed us that a new approach to intelligence collection and sharing is the way forward. The operation that I think he is referring to—Operation Dragon Root—yielded excellent results.

My Lords, most of the illegal firearms smuggled into the UK are from Europe. Can the Minister explain how UK law enforcement agencies can continue to exchange information and intelligence with EU countries about gun smuggling after Brexit without complying with EU data protection laws, which are set and regularly updated by the EU? What are the Government going to compromise on—security or sovereignty?

I think that I have déjà vu here, because the noble Lord asked me that the other evening when we had a three and a half hour debate on the subject of security and policing between the UK and the EU. As I explained then, and will explain now, co-operation will be not just absolutely key going forward but one of the top priorities for this country.

Is the Minister aware that, in the past, amnesties have been used in different parts of the United Kingdom but under very strong conditions, as in the context of weapons which have been used to commit a crime? Can any possible amnesties be looked into with great care, as all the circumstances need to be taken fully into account?

My noble friend is absolutely right that amnesties have been used in the past—most recently in Northern Ireland, if I am not mistaken—and that great care needs to be taken around such an approach.

It is my great friend the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey. How many of those firearms were seized from one registered firearms dealer?

I have all sorts of facts and figures but I do not have that one, so I will write to my noble friend on that point.

Does the Minister agree that figures on the numbers of illegal firearms seized each year are not very meaningful without an estimate of the percentage of firearms illegally imported into the UK that are seized each year? Is she able to tell us whether we are seizing most firearms that are illegally imported or only a very small percentage?

That is a very difficult question to answer in reference to the first Answer that I gave. However, I can give examples of seizures, for example through Operation Dragon Root, during a specific period of time. In the October operation, there were 282 confirmed arrests and the recovery of 833 firearms, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Harris, pointed out. There were also seizures of 169 other weapons, 4,385 rounds of ammunition and over £575,000 worth of cash.

My Lords, the operation that my noble friend referred to was indeed a success, and I am sure that the whole House will pay tribute to the police units that were involved. Will my noble friend explain what thinking is being done in government at the moment to reconcile what was an effective national operation against what is a much more localised agenda of policing around the PCCs, who probably would not prioritise such operations?

What my noble friend is referring to has not only a national element to it but also an international element in terms of the multiagency approach. Of course the NCA has regional operations as well, but in terms of keeping the country safe from a national and international point of view the national agencies are very often involved.

Is there not a distinction between a collector who holds illegal weapons and a criminal who holds illegal weapons, and do the stats that the Minister has produced actually draw that distinction?

There is most certainly a difference between a collector and a criminal, and we discussed this at length in the Policing and Crime Bill. In terms of the arrests and the rounds of ammunition, they certainly will be criminal activities. In terms of the other weapons, there possibly is a distinction. I will try and disaggregate that for the noble Lord, although I will not promise as I did to the noble Lord, Lord Rosser.