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Plymouth Shootings

Volume 827: debated on Wednesday 22 February 2023


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Tuesday 21 February.

“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 its 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 honourable Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport 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 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 has 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 has 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.”

My Lords, I thank the Government for the Statement in Parliament yesterday. In anticipation of what the Minister will say, I thank him in advance for the measured remarks he will no doubt make.

This is a shocking Statement. We should mourn the killing of five innocent people: Maxine Davison, Sophie Martyn—who was a three year-old child—Lee Martyn, Stephen Washington and Kate Shepherd. Two others were wounded. Our thoughts go out once again to the friends and families of the victims and to the whole community in Keyham, the rest of Plymouth and beyond at this shocking incident.

The inquest jurors’ conclusions were damning, as indeed were the findings of the Independent Office for Police Conduct. There was a catastrophic failure at Devon and Cornwall Police in the individual decisions taken and the appalling lack of supervision, training and oversight. What action are the Government taking to ensure that the issues at Devon and Cornwall Police are corrected—although tragically too late for those killed and their families?

After the shocking incident in Dunblane, firearms units were supposed 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 more until 2020. How on earth did that happen? Is the Minister certain that all firearms licensing units across the country are properly trained and fully up to date with the latest guidance? The last HMICFRS inspection on firearms was eight years ago in 2015. Welcome though it is that the next one is in 2024-25, why is it not happening immediately—particularly in the light of the inquest jury reporting its findings into this horrific incident? Why is there any wait at all?

The childhood and teenage history of the killer, Jake Davison, should have triggered far more questions and expert advice. The mental health marker is finally being introduced, but why is it in statutory guidance and not a legal duty? Is the Minister aware of calls by the new chief constable of Devon and Cornwall Police for legislation on firearms licensing? Do the Government agree with that?

The perpetrator, Jake Davison, was an incel. These malign online influences on young men in particular have been overlooked for too long. In the past year, there were 77 referrals to Prevent for incels and 154 referrals for potentially planning or thinking about a school massacre. Is the Minister aware whether there is a flag on the Prevent systems to notify police if someone referred to Prevent has a gun licence?

It has been reported in the press today that thousands of gun owners have had their licences renewed without fresh vetting because of long backlogs. How big is this backlog nationally and what are the Government doing about it? It was further reported in the Times yesterday that temporary licences of up to 12 months have been approved without enhanced background checks and that several police forces have automatically extended licences rather than go through the laborious process of a five-year renewal because their firearms departments are in disarray. This cannot be right, either for legitimate gun owners or for public protection. Is the Minister aware of the article and, if not, will he look into it? It also includes an estimate by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation that there are some 24,000 new shooters waiting to get their certificates. This is not good, either for legitimate gun owners or public protection. As we saw in the awful events in Plymouth, the firearms licensing system has to function smoothly and effectively to protect us all.

As the Minister in the other place said—and I know our Minister will—we want to act to ensure that our controls on firearms are as robust as possible. The terrible events in Keyham and the equally horrific events in Skye in Scotland remind us all of the need to learn any lessons and act as speedily as possible. Nothing else will do, will it?

My Lords, I thank the Government for their Statement. The horrifying and tragic events in Plymouth remind us all that guns are lethal weapons and should be kept out of the wrong hands at all costs. Our sympathy must be with the families who were directly affected and the community in Plymouth so tragically shocked by this event in their midst. As we always say, we must at least for them ensure that lessons are learned and the mistakes and failings in the gun licensing system are eliminated. The trouble is that recently we have been saying this far too often.

In the wake of the Dunblane shootings in 1996, Lord Cullen recommended nationally accredited training for firearms enquiry officers who decide on the issue and renewal of firearms licences—a recommendation echoed in 2015 by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary. There has been a failure by the Home Office and the national College of Policing to implement those recommendations. Why has this not been done?

One of the consequences of this case is that the BMA and the Government have now agreed a system for a mandatory report from a GP before the police will consider a gun licence, and that the licence application will be recorded on individual medical records. Is the Minister satisfied that this is adequate? Can the five-year implementation period be shortened by examining existing licences where no medical opinion was forthcoming? Are the Government satisfied that the computer system links will work so that we do not have failures there in due course?

It is a wake-up call for all of us to realise that there are more than 600,000 firearm and shotgun licences currently issued. We are clearly not a minimum-gun or gun-free country, which we might assume we are. There are more than 2 million firearms and shotguns associated with these licences. We will be told in the circumstances that firearm incidents are very rare, just as the firearms lobby in America tells us that, given the number of firearms in the USA, the terrible incidents they experience are small compared with the number of guns owned. But our system inevitably and rightly requires a huge police resource to manage a licensing system for people who want to retain a firearm largely for leisure purposes.

I have read that Devon and Cornwall Police has doubled its licensing manpower from 40 to 90. Is this confirmed by government information? It is clearly long overdue—as I think the Government now accept—that the licensing fees of £79.50 for shotguns and £88 for firearms for a five-year licence should be reviewed. Is it true that the process of issuing licences costs in excess of £500 per licence? Do the Government currently know the actual costs of issuing a licence and maintaining the system? It seems incredible that the cost per year of a new firearms licence—in effect, £17.60 per annum—is less than that for a standard annual fishing licence, which involves no checks, at £20. I am afraid that owners of firearms will have to contribute more to the cost of protecting the public. Does the Minister agree?

Finally, the new chief constable of Devon and Cornwall Police has accepted that the police failed to safeguard the public. He has called for a fundamental change in licensing arrangements, pointing particularly to the absence of clear national guidance, direction and specific legislation covering firearms licensing. Do the Government accept this and how quickly will they now act? It is important to the families and the community of Plymouth affected by this terrible failure that the Government now act very quickly.

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their comments. I express my deepest sympathy for the friends and families of the victims, who obviously should remain first and foremost in our thoughts. I declare that I am a shotgun owner, a holder of a shotgun certificate and a member of the BASC.

I was asked a number of questions, and I will do my best to answer them in the time available. My right honourable friend in the other place said that it is anticipated that the coroner will shortly issue a prevention of future deaths report, in which recommendations will be made. The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, made reference to the IOPC report and of course the inquest. The Government have committed to respond substantively to all of these reports, including another one from Scotland, within 60 days of receiving the last three. I know that those responses will deal with a number of the questions that we have been asked tonight, which I will endeavour to comment on.

The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked me about the actions that have been taken in Devon and Cornwall. I have a copy of the IOPC report here: it has made it clear that it has been assured by Devon and Cornwall Police that learnings have been acted on and that these will be monitored through joint meetings. My right honourable friend in the other place committed to an HMICFRS report as soon as practicable, and I believe it will continue to dip in and do various checks—I forget the terminology—on the quality of the firearms licences that are being issued. It is fairly safe to say that the catastrophic failures have been acknowledged, as described in the inquest report, and that something is being done about this.

I place on record my thanks to the chief constable of Devon and Cornwall for accepting responsibility. I also thank the police and crime commissioner in Devon and Cornwall, who has admitted that the firearms licensing department was perhaps underresourced but said that significant funding has been made available to improve it. I do not know whether that involves increasing the numbers from 40 to 90, but I will endeavour to find out the precise numbers involved.

On other actions, it is perhaps important to talk about the medical situation and the medical changes made through the statutory guidance. The Government have taken action to improve the consistency and robustness of firearms licensing decisions. In October 2021, new statutory guidance for chief officers of police was published, and police forces have a legal duty to have regard to this when carrying out their firearms licensing function. The guidance is helping to improve the quality of police firearms licensing procedure and achieve greater consistency across police forces. It was refreshed earlier this month to improve how people applying for a firearms certificate are assessed, and this will include social media checks and medical records, which the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, referenced.

A key part of the statutory guidance is to ensure that there are arrangements to help to ensure that the police are provided with relevant medical information, including on mental health, from applicants’ GPs before firearms licences are issued or renewed. Following collaborative work between NHS Digital, government departments, and medical and police representatives, a new digital marker for firearms has been rolled out to GP IT systems in England from July 2022. The introduction of the digital marker is an important public safety step, and it will obviously assist in the continuous monitoring of certificate holders by the police, as it will automatically alert the GP to potentially relevant changes in the licence-holder’s health. I do not have any information on how well that system is working, but this is obviously such a topical and important subject that I expect to be able to update noble Lords soon.

On the more national aspect of the training of firearms licensing staff, we are supporting the College of Policing in its programme to refresh the firearms licensing authorised professional practice, and in its costing model to address current gaps in firearms licensing training quality assurance and national consistency. It is fair to say that there is a degree of inconsistency across the country—as a member of the BASC, I read about this fairly frequently in its publications. On 12 January, the college launched a consultation on a revised version of its APP—authorised professional practice—in respect of firearms licensing, and that will run until 10 March 2023.

A very good point was made about fees. We commenced a review into firearms licensing fees for police-issued certificates. I do not know what the total cost is, but I imagine it varies very much by force. The fees were last revised in 2015, and we are working closely with the police, the shooting community and other government departments. We are committed to ensuring an efficient and effective firearms licensing system and to achieving full cost recovery, so that will definitely form a part of future discussions here.

The noble Lord asked me a good question about incels, which was also asked by his colleague in the other House, specifically with regard to referrals to Prevent. He will have seen that my right honourable friend committed to look into this more. His conclusions certainly have not reached me, so I suspect that this is ongoing—therefore it would be unwise of me to comment specifically on this now. But it is fairly clear that many indicators as regards the perpetrator of this appalling crime were missed and that this should not have happened—there is no disagreement here. That clearly has implications for women and girls. I was particularly struck by one of the comments of the noble Lord’s colleagues, the Member for York Central, who talked about a constituent of hers who is in hiding because a partner with a violent and abusive background has had his firearm returned. That clearly should not happen under any circumstances. She made good points, and I strongly believe that those sorts of things will come into the recommendations that are made in the coroner’s prevention report, which we will respond to in the fullness of time. I hope I will be forgiven for not going into the specifics of incels and that type of destructive culture, but we clearly need to bear it very much in mind.

To sum up, I highlight a comment that my right honourable friend made in summarising his speech. He said:

“I commit today that any further changes needed to protect the public will be made.”—[Official Report, Commons, 21/2/23; col. 156.]

I take him at his word, and I commend his Statement to this House.

My Lords, can the Minister explain a little bit more about how we will ensure that families who are concerned about an individual who has a shotgun licence can get the relevant mental health and police help? In this circumstance, as I understand it, the mother of Jake Davison did ask for help. As a mother myself, I feel it is probably better that he shot his mother before other people, because to feel responsible for your own son killing other people, when you have sought help, is really devastating. In our criticism of the police, we must not lose sight of the fact that the system does not exist to give people help when they seek it. Can the Minister comment on that issue?

I turn to my second question. Noble Lords know that I am a mental health nurse. We need to recognise that the relationship between a GP and their patients is complex, and I think that it could become very difficult if we rest entirely on GPs being expected to say whether something is safe or not. Should we not build something into the system whereby, if a GP is in doubt, a specialist psychiatrist can be consulted in those areas?

I thank the noble Baroness for her comments. What a truly tragic comment to have to make from her point of view—although, of course, I agree with her. I cannot go into detail as to what the review, and the reports to which we will respond, will say, for obvious reasons: we have not had them all yet. Again, I quote my right honourable friend in the other House, who made it very clear that we will respond comprehensively to the recommendations in these reports. He said that he knows that it

“will include consideration of domestic abuse and domestic violence, which are clearly indicators of substantially increased risk”,

as they were in this case. He said that he

“would be happy to discuss those recommendations as soon as they come out”.—[Official Report, Commons, 21/2/23; col. 163.]

I think that we should wait for those recommendations, but I cannot believe that they will not be part of any response. It would seem to me inconceivable that that would be the case.

On enhanced psychiatric monitoring, if we can call it that, it is again too early for me to speculate, but, clearly, GPs are not always going to be qualified to make some of those judgments—or so I would assume. I think that the noble Baroness makes a very good point, and I will make sure that it is well known in the Home Office.

My Lords, I will continue on the subject of the involvement of GPs but will look at it slightly more systematically. The Minister referred to NHS Digital and markers in GP records, but he also referred to inconsistencies across police forces. As we come to the review and we look at how data and the system are shared, can he assure the House that the various police forces, the police and crime commissioners, and GPs across England and Wales, which are much more shared systems, are consistent in how they approach these matters?

I thank the noble Baroness for her comments; that will certainly be part of the approach we will take. Obviously, the tone of this discussion has to be very gloomy, but there are a number of things that would suggest that firearms licensing is being carried out safely in other forces. I will refer to that, because it is important that we do so. Immediately following the tragic shootings, the then Home Secretary asked all police forces to review urgently their licensing practices, and, in particular, to carry out a full review of all the certificates that had been seized, refused, revoked or surrendered in the previous 12 months and subsequently approved by the police. The main points from that review, which were announced on 1 November 2021, were that, collectively, a total of 6,434 firearms and shotgun licences had been surrendered, seized, revoked or refused over the previous 12-month period across England, Wales and Scotland. Of those, a total of 908 licences had been subsequently returned or issued following further checks or appeals decided by the courts. As a result of that review of returned licences, in eight cases the original decision was overturned, and licences were resurrendered or revoked. Those findings ought to provide some reassurance that the police have in place robust processes for issuing and reviewing firearms and shotgun licences—which is not to say that we could not do more and perhaps introduce a bit more national consistency, as discussed.

I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, because, in my opening remarks, I neglected to refer to the article that he mentioned. I have seen the article; I have not studied it in detail, but I will come back to him on it.

Sitting suspended.