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Scottish Affairs Committee 

Oral evidence: Firearms licensing regulations in Scotland, HC 710

Monday 24 October 2022

Ordered by the House of Commons to be published on 24 October 2022.

Watch the meeting

Members present: Pete Wishart (Chair); Mhairi Black; Deidre Brock; Wendy Chamberlain; Sally-Ann Hart; John Lamont; Douglas Ross.

Questions 1 - 90

Witnesses

I: Dr Michael North, Founder Member, Gun Control Network; and Gordon Matheson, Pastor of Sleat and Strath, Free Church of Scotland.

II: Fraser Lamb, Firearms Licensing Adviser, Scottish Association for Country Sports; and Dr Colin Shedden, Director Scotland, British Association for Shooting and Conservation.


Examination of witnesses

Witnesses: Dr Michael North and Gordon Matheson.

Q1                Chair: Welcome to the Scottish Affairs Committee and our first evidence session on firearms licensing regulations in Scotland. We are delighted to have Dr Michael North, one of the founders of the Gun Control Network, to help us out with this short inquiry today. Do you want to introduce yourself, Dr North, and say anything you may have by way of a short introductory statement? The floor is yours.

Dr North: I don’t, but I am Mick North. I was co-founder of the Gun Control Network in 1996, shortly after my daughter was one of the victims at the Dunblane Primary School shootings. Since then, I have been involved to a greater and lesser extent in various campaigns and lobbying that we have done over the last 26 years, as it is now.

Q2                Chair: Thank you ever so much for joining us today and helping us out with this inquiry. I note that you have appeared in front of the Home Affairs Select Committee, I believe, in the past few years.

Could you start by telling us your view of the current firearms licensing requirements and what you observe as adequate? I am thinking about some of the innovations that we have had in the course of the past few years, such as the requirement now to provide character references and the requirement for applicants to have home visits by the police. Give us your view on what you observe.

Dr North: There is always a lot of talk about how robust the licensing system is, but I think it should not just be robust: it should be as robust as possible. That is probably where we see that there are problems. Just a year ago we had the new statutory guidance, which on paper certainly looks as though it will have improved things, although it is probably too soon to tell exactly how that will play out.

There are still problems. There are still problems, we understand, with the length of time it is taking the licensing system to deal with applications. Our belief is that this is largely due to a lack of resourcesa lack of resources because the licence fee does not cover the full cost of what the police have to carry out in order to provide an applicant with a licence.

Q3                Chair: We have secured quite a wide range of evidence when we asked for it from a lot of people who have a stake and an interest in this issue. One of the things that has come out is the review period, which is five years just now, where somebody has to go back and have a renewal application considered. We know that other countries do different periods. I think that it is three years in countries like Belgium and Brazil. Have you any particular views on that and anything about the renewal application at all that you might have observed?

Dr North: We would certainly argue in favour of a shorter period. We think that some of the personal circumstances of gun owners are likely to change, in some cases quite significantly, over a period of five yearsrelationship changes; problems with drug and alcohol abuse. Although it does appear that many countries have a five-year period, very few have anything longer than that. We understand that some shooting organisations have for a while been pushing for a 10-year period and we think that is absolutely unacceptable.

We would want to go for two or three years. That way firearms licensing fulfils what it ought to do, which is to protect the public. It is not primarily a service to the shooting organisations. It should be primarily, fundamentally, a system that protects the public from danger.

Q4                Chair: Yes, absolutely. We have some of the firearms associations coming in to speak to us after we have concluded the session with yourself and Mr Matheson.

In the current regulations, if you have a criminal record it is still possible to secure a firearms licence. Do you think that it is acceptable that individuals who have criminal records may still apply for a firearms licence?

Dr North: I think there probably are some circumstances where it might be acceptableif it is a long enough period; if there has been sufficient evidence that the person has changedbut it would have to be a long time after they have served their sentence. I don’t know that I see that as one of the main problems. One of the problems I perceive is people whose personal circumstances or mental health changes, or is not appropriate at the time they make the application. That is what the firearms licensing system should be very robust enough to pick up as much as possible.

It is interesting that the HMIC did a survey in 2015 and published a report, “Targeting the risk”. One thing it said was that although the vast majority of decisions about granting someone a licence are correct, no-one should be satisfied with the vast majority’”. Public safety demands a higher threshold, and I think that is keythat we do not just say, “Oh well, it works most of the time.” It should work all the time or certainly aim to be working all the time.

Q5                Chair: One of the things we have found surprising in the early stages of this inquiry in some of the things that we have secured in written evidence is the scale and the number of gun licences that are in operation across Scotland. I think that Scotland by far supersedes the rest of the United Kingdom per head. I do not know if you have any views about that, or whether there is a sense as to whether all these guns are necessary. It does seem to be an awful lot of guns that are currently in Scotland.

Dr North: That is certainly how I feel. In our submission, we said that the number of guns is something like four per person for section 1 firearms and three per person for shotguns, for licence holders. You will not be surprised to know that I have never shot. I have never wanted anything to do with guns, so I cannot tell you exactly why anyone would need that number of guns, but it certainly does seem to me to be excessive.

Another thing we have always highlighted is the fact that on a shotgun licence you can actually have as many as you like without having to justify each individual weapon. We think there would be an improvement if you had to state the purpose for every single shotgun you needed to own if you want to hold a certificate. In other words, bring shotguns under the same licensing system as section 1 firearms.

Q6                Wendy Chamberlain: Thank you, Dr North, for being here today. In terms of the licensing requirements, yes, they require home visits, but I see from our paperwork that one of the things the Gun Control Network would look for is to have family members interviewed in relation to licences. I am very conscious that we are here as a result of an incident, but there are previous incidents where family relations have been among the victims of shootings. I would appreciate your thoughts on that, please.

Dr North: We have pointed out in the past that Canada, on its application form—I have the Royal Canadian Mounted Police firearms application form here—asks for the name of a spouse or partner from the previous two years, I think it is. That spouse or partner has to sign, and if they do not sign then the RCMP will get in touch with them. At the moment, as far as I remember, the statutory guidance suggests that a partner is spoken to, but I think it is one of a number of things in statutory guidance—here again I do have a problem—that is a “may be made” or “may consider” or “will usually mean” rather than “must be”. In Canada, it is on the application from.

Q7                Wendy Chamberlain: I suppose my issue with the Canadian one is that if we are looking at issues around coercive control, that potentially would never prevent that signature.

Dr North: Of course, and it is hard to see how you get around that, but at least it gives the partner an opportunity that they may not otherwise have.

Q8                Chair: You obviously became involved in all this after the tragic incident that we had in Dunblane, and you have been campaigning very effectively on this issue for a number of years. I am wondering what impact and effect these incidents have on a community. What type of trauma does it bring? I know that the Dunblane tragedy is way bigger and more significant than what we saw in Skye, but it is still a very serious issue. What would your view be about how this impacts communities?

Dr North: It is somewhat hard for me to untangle when I am personally bereaved by the incident. To some extent, I am picking up on what others in the community felt, but it is widespread. One of the things that was particularly upsetting was the fact that this person was a licensed gun holder. He had been deemed to be a fit and proper person to have these very dangerous weapons. That is something that certainly drove those of us who wanted a handgun ban to campaign on the issue. There is this sense that someone somewhere has said it is okay for this person to own a weapon, and there is something apparently more dangerous and in reality more dangerous about a firearm than other types of weapon. There does always feel to be an enhanced degree of threat involved and, therefore, an enhanced degree of upset when something like that happens.

Q9                Douglas Ross: Dr North, thank you for your evidence. Can I follow up on the Chair’s point? You came through that personal tragedy and a national tragedy for our country and you started your campaigning almost 25 years ago, roughly; do you feel you have gone some way, or the whole way? Are you frustrated with the progress that has been made? How would you sum up your effort and the efforts of others to have more regulation to make people safer?

Dr North: It has been a mixed experience. Looking back in retrospect, the speed with which the full handgun ban was achieved, within 18 months, was amazing, and there are a lot of people to thank for that, the British people in particular for expressing their wish to change things and then all the politicians and journalists who also supported us in the campaign.

One of the reasons that the Gun Control Network was set up was to ensure that there was a voice for stricter controls over guns, because up until that period it felt as though the only voice that politicians were tending to hear was that of the people who wanted to use guns. We wanted to be there, and over the years since the ban was finally introduced in late 1997 we have looked at various other issues where we feel that public safety could well be compromised.

We have had some success. It has probably not made the headlines in the way that the handgun ban did but certainly we helped to persuade the Labour Administration in 2005-06 to introduce restrictions on the ownership of imitation guns. There are holes in that legislation that we would like to see tightened up. I was on a Scottish panel that advised in the lead-up to the Scottish Government introducing airgun licensing in Scotland, something that I feel very proud of as well.

Q10            Douglas Ross: I wish to ask about a couple of things you have said today. First, on the number of licences we have in Scotland, I understand what you are saying about how the number of guns certain individuals have is concerning, but could it also be looked at as at least these people are registering their guns and we have a system in place? Although the numbers for some people are quite worryingly high, at least people are going through the process that is laid out at the moment.

Dr North: Yes, but I would still be worried. There have been too many instances where a licensed gun owner has used a gun with tragic impact. They might not be the bulk of firearms offences but they are significant and when they do occur they often have more victims than other forms of firearms crime.

Q11            Douglas Ross: We have certainly seen in other areas a move away from guns as a weapon of choice to knives, machetes and other things but, as you say, the destruction can be far greater with a gun than another weapon.

You said that you have never shot a gun before, like probably the vast majority. We are looking at an incident in an area where there are lots of farmers and crofters who do require guns for the safety of their stock and for their livelihood. How do you work with those who fundamentally do need them for their business and those who maybe use them for sports or those who have them for illegitimate means?

Dr North: I am not looking for a ban on the use of firearms and shotguns. I recognise that they will have a use in certain circumstances. What I would like is the number to be minimisedthose who just casually own them because it may be relatively too easy to get one. I would like things minimised as much as possible.

Q12            Wendy Chamberlain: Dr North, I do not know how much you are able to give us on this but I am interested in your views on the role of the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner for Scotland. It has a role in investigating firearms incidents involving the police. Regardless of the circumstances, it is called in to investigate. What is your knowledge of the process that PIRC follows?

Dr North: I am afraid I don’t have any knowledge. Sorry about that.

Q13            Wendy Chamberlain: Thats fine. What would be your expectations or what would you want to see from an independent inquiry body such as PIRC?

Dr North: I would like all the circumstances surrounding the incident to be investigated. One problem we have had sometimes in following up informationthis may not apply to Scotland—is that when incidents occur we tend to have to go to the press very often to find out details. Those details may not be entirely correct. Information about whether the perpetrator of a particular incident was licensed or not is very difficult to extract from the police. I would hope that the process would be open and if the person was definitely licensed then all the circumstances under which that application was made and granted should be investigated.

Q14            Wendy Chamberlain: They are already investigating all firearms incidents, but what it sounds like you are saying is that potentially the fact that there is a central firearms granting command structure within Police Scotland, with licences being granted within Scotland and then feeding up into a single place, helps with some of that, but that is obviously not the case for other parts of the UK.

Dr North: It has never felt like it. You have to gather information from 43 different police forces in England and Wales. It shows that there are a lot of discrepancies between them in the first place, which was highlighted in the HMIC report from 2015 and which I think the statutory guidance has tried to iron out to some extent. I know, because I have seen the evidence that Peter Squires has submitted to the Committee, that he speculated as to whether since Police Scotland was formed there is a more co-ordinated attitude towards firearms incidents and firearms licensing in Scotland.

Wendy Chamberlain: Even for PIRC itself, from a police perspective it is a single point of contact for them to engage with in relation to that inquiry. Thank you very much, Dr North.

Q15            Deidre Brock: Thank you so much for coming along, Dr North. It is much appreciated.

The chief police officer of a police force area can revoke a licence if they feel that a licence holder cannot be trusted with firearms, and GPs of a licence holder can approach the police to express concerns about them and their suitability. When changes about a licence holder—as you have mentioned, perhaps a change in mental health or family circumstances—mean it is felt that it is no longer suitable for them to own a firearm, how easy is it for others to raise concerns about an individual and then for a licence to be revoked?

Dr North: Our impression is that it is sometimes very difficult. We have people contacting us with stories about a neighbour, for example, and they have sometimes tried to get the police to look into this but not always with success. One of the things that we advocated a number of years ago was a separate helpline for anybody who wants to raise concerns about a gun owner. We thought at one time that that was going ahead. It may still be somewhere in the pipeline but it has not happened yeta separate hotline for concerns about a gun owner, particularly a licensed gun owner.

Deidre Brock: We will obviously try to investigate whether that is happening.

Dr North: Anecdotally, we have had a lot of evidence from individuals contacting us who say they have not got anywhere with their concerns.

Q16            Deidre Brock: That is concerning. Some folk feel that the countryside sports and agricultural industries should have some greater accountability for the behaviour of licence holders. It is obviously a difficult subject, but do you have any thoughts on how that might be achieved?

Dr North: Not on how the organisations themselves would do it. One of the things we have pointed out is that clearly in the context of gun clubs they should know these people who are coming to their clubs. They should not just leave them open for everybody and anybody. I think the same would apply to people who are involved in country sports.

Q17            Sally-Ann Hart: Good afternoon, Dr North. My colleague mentioned something about mental health and that impact, and when we have seen these horrendous tragedies it is often to do with serious mental health issues. You have mentioned that people have raised the issue and cannot seem to get the message through. Looking at mental health support for licence holders, do you think there should be any policy changes that the Scottish or UK Governments should put in place in order to support firearms licence holders’ mental health? What practical changes would you like to see, if any?

Dr North: I have not really thought about it in that way. My concern has been that someone with a mental health issue should either admit that themselves or that should be known to their GP and then passed on to the licensing authority. I have not really considered support for someone with mental health issues who is a gun owner. What I always say about anything to do with issues like this is that if there were any cost involved it should fall on the shooter themselves.

Q18            Sally-Ann Hart: Looking at the police and GPs, I understand that the police can ask and GPs can inform but there is obviously a little reluctance because of confidentiality. Do you think the police and medical practitioners should improve communication? If so, how could that be done so that we do not miss those licence holders who might have mental health issues?

Dr North: It has been improving, I have to say. It is something that we have been advocating for a long time. A medical certificate now has to be completed by an applicant and I think the system of markers is now fully incorporated into the system. To some extent, it is up to the gun ownerthe licenseeto consult their GP and say, “I have this problem.” There is a concern that there have been some gun owners who prefer their ownership of their gun to their mental health so will not consult with a GP or anybody else for fear that they might lose their licence.

Q19            Sally-Ann Hart: Would you say that when it comes to mental health there are different levels and there might be a degree of proportionality? For someone with, let’s say, depression, or someone who is psychotic, for example, there are different issues there. Perhaps someone who is feeling anxious or depressed for a while might not refer to their GP but someone who suffers from psychosis would not know they—

Dr North: Yes, I am sure there will be differences. I cannot claim to have any expertise and I think that you would need to consult with experts on that issue. It is telling how many cases there have been where somebody’s poor mental health has been apparent retrospectively and then it has been revealed that somebody close to them was well aware of it, yet the system does not have a way of dealing with that.

Q20            Sally-Ann Hart: Gun licences are currently for five years, I understand, and you would like to see them made shorter. If you have five years, you are advocating more regular checks. If it was two or three years, would you still be advocating regular checks within that time period?

Dr North: They would be less necessary. I think that the need for ongoing checks is there at the moment with five years, but my impression is that there aren’t many ongoing checks between the five-year period. In fact, because of problems with the system, that five years is often being extended now. People are getting temporary permits because the police do not have the resources to deal with licensing. Someone is given a temporary permit so they do not have to surrender their gun before renewal. That again is a concern.

Sally-Ann Hart: Thank you, Dr North. I have no further questions.

Q21            Chair: Can I just come briefly back to the very good point you made about this tension for gun licensees who may feel they have an emerging mental health issue but do not present to a medical professional for fear of being relieved of their gun, which they might feel is valuable? That would seem to me to be quite a major problem to get around. In your experience and from the campaigning work you have done, is there anything that you would suggest as to how we could approach that?

Dr North: Again, if they have people who are close to them, whether it is friends or—

Chair: Is this not what the home visit helps to do?

Dr North: You would hope the home visit would, but the police say that home visits outside of the one at the time of the first application do appear to be problematic. That is, I think, recognised in the statutory guidance. My understanding is that home visits other than at the time of the initial application rarely happen. I think there is some suggestion that some of them can be done remotely, but that sounds more to do with making sure that guns are stored safely and showing photographs of a secure cabinet or whatever.

Q22            Chair: Is there a case, then, that GPs could flag particular issues that they observe about potential applicants or people who are in possession of a gun licence, or for getting other members of the communitypeople who are associates or friends of a gun licenseeto be able to flag up particular concerns when it comes to deteriorating mental health, for example?

Dr North: Again, if there was a hotline or something, that could be used if you have concerns about a gun owner. Obviously, the ideal situation is for a friend or partner to encourage the person themselves.

Q23            Chair: It is interesting that you said hotline. Have you looked at this as a way forward?

Dr North: Yes, we have talked to the Home Office about it and it looked as though there may have been money set aside for itI can’t remember exactly from wherebut it never happened.

Chair: That is interesting. Thank you.

Q24            Wendy Chamberlain: Can I ask one more question? In one of your earlier answers you said that the starting position should be to ensure that people are safe and protected from gun crime. At a very basic level, do you feel that is how the system is set up? Or are we potentially over-indexed to the other extreme, which is that people should have guns unless we can prove otherwise?

Dr North: I am pleased to say that we have been edging towards the former, but there are still elements of the latter there. You still hear gun organisations talking about a service to them rather than as a service to the general public, which is what I think it ought to be.

Q25            Douglas Ross: In response to Sally-Ann’s points about reducing the period from five years to two or three years, your answer was that the police are not able to do all the checks required five-yearly. We will be hearing evidence from the Scottish Justice Secretary, Keith Brown; what would you say to the Scottish Government about the resources of the police? If they are not meeting all their criteria for five years but you would like to see that reduced to two to three, there is no way they will be able to achieve that, is there, on current officer numbers and so on?

Dr North: More resources are needed, so more financing of those resources is needed. That has to come from the applicants themselves. At the moment, we are talking about £80 or £90 for a five-year period. We were told 10 years ago that the cost to the police of administering a licence was over £200. That means either that the police cannot do the job thoroughly enough so are letting the public down, or the taxpayer is subsidising the sport of shooting, neither of which is satisfactory. I have been told that some of the shooting community want to push for a 10-year period because that will save on police resources and that will offset any increase in fee that they have to pay. They are happy to pay a bigger fee but they want a longer period out of it. That completely ignores that 10 years is far too long to allow someone to have a lethal weapon unchecked.

Q26            Sally-Ann Hart: One quite important point is that measures against reducing firearms offences are decreasing in Scotland. We see that in 2019-20 there were 341 offences, which was still too many but the second lowest number since records began, but they were mainly to do with pistols and revolvers and a firearm not held on a firearms certificate, and they were probably offences to do with illegally held handguns and revolvers. That is another issue altogether. What do you think needs to be done in those situations?

Dr North: It is a very important issue and there is no getting away from the fact that there are still illegal weapons in circulation. We can certainly point to the fact that although handguns are banned, it is still legal to import some guns that look like handgunsguns that can be converted to fire live ammunition. There are factories that have been set up to convert blank-firing pistols that it is still possible to import. There are a number of loopholes and we certainly look at them as well. It is not that we are only focusing on the legal gun issue, but it feels that in some respects it is important for legislators to look carefully at what is being allowedwhat is being permittedby those in authority.

Q27            Mhairi Black: Thank you, Dr North, for giving us your time. Could I take you back to the GP reports? If applicants have to pay for those reports by the GP, is that in itself not a disincentive for people who are worried about their mental health but want to have a firearm?

Dr North: It could be, yes. This is relatively new, in the last few years, so I imagine that there are still people working through the system. There may well be people who have had their licences from before the medical certificates. It took some years, I think, for the BMA, the Government and shooting organisations to sort things out. Yes, there are various disincentives, and obviously there is a financial disincentive as well, but as I say, I think that it is important that those who want to shoot cover the cost of what they are doing and that it is not left for others to pick up the tab.

Q28            Mhairi Black: You have kind of already answered my next question. Do you think the personal cost of wanting a gun should be higher? Do you think it should cover all the costs? Or should police cover some of the costs?

Dr North: I don’t think the police should cover any of the costs. When you look at other licensing, if you want an HGV licence or a PSV licence, you have to pay for a medical certificate and a medical examination. The Treasury should be insisting on full cost recovery. We know that for other types of applicationvisa applications, for example—the Home Office makes a profit out of them. There is this idea that we have this particular category of application. It certainly appears that with police resources so limited it definitely is not charging a fee that covers the full cost. Again, probably going back 10 years or so, we thought that there was going to be a big increase and this appears to have been vetoed at the highest level of Government.

Q29            Mhairi Black: One of the things we have also discovered—you mentioned it yourself, saying the cost that you heard police forces were having to pay up was roughly £250—is that the figures that we have from different police forces range from £80 per application right up to £500. Do you have any reason or theory as to why there is such a range in what different police forces are paying?

Dr North: No, but it does not surprise me because you only have to look, referring back to the HMIC’s “Targeting the risk again, at the differences between the different police forces that it was looking into and how they dealt with things. The statutory guidance will have sorted out some of the differences but it did not deal with the cost, so I have no idea. I am surprised that anyone can do it for £80.

Q30            Mhairi Black: Finally, you are saying that the police force is providing a service and keeping folk safe, but if they were—in fact, I am wording this wrong. I will come back in, Chair, once I have figured out how I want to word this.

Chair: We are close to the end of the session. Does anybody else have any last questions they would like to ask Dr North while Mhairi Black—

Mhairi Black: I am trying to figure out how to word it. It is fine; I will write to you if I can think of a better way of asking it.

Dr North: Yes, please do if you need to know anything else.

Q31            Chair: Dr North, thank you ever so much for helping us out with this session and if anything else strikes you as being important, please get back in touch with the Committee. We are doing a small inquiry into this and hopefully collating some conclusions and recommendations that we will give to the UK Government and maybe even to the Scottish Government. For now, thank you.

Mr Matheson is ready on the line. Welcome to the Committee, Mr Matheson. I understand that you have had a whole series of disappointments in your journey down to Westminster, which I think you had to abandon late last night. We are very grateful that you could join us down the line today. To get things started with your part of the session, tell us who you are and your relationship with the community that has been so badly impacted by the latest shooting.

Gordon Matheson: Thanks for being able to facilitate my joining online. The weather prevented my travel getting down from Inverness today. I am here as a pastor of a rural congregation in the south end of the Isle of Skye. On 10 August this year my community was the scene of a multiple shooting incident. The incident itself is subject to ongoing court action. Mr MacDonald, who was arrested on the day, is still to enter a plea, in fact, so it is at a very early stage in the courts. As well as that, there are, I understand, a number of Police Investigations and Review Commissioner inquiries ongoing.

In terms of what I can tell you about what happened on the day and some of the things that I know have happened before that, I am probably very limited today in what I can offer. I am sure you have the background on the incident itself. A lot of what I can tell you is already in the press. On the morning of 10 August there was a domestic incident in the village of Tarskavaig at the home of Rowena and Finlay MacDonald. She was stabbed multiple times and subsequently airlifted to Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow.

The individual now in custody, her husband Finlay, then collected his licensed firearm and drove about 20 minutes to his sister’s home, where his brother-in-law was shot fatally. He then returned to his car and drove a further 25 miles across the Skye Bridge over to the mainland, to the village of Dornie. There was a further discharge of firearms and John Don and Fay MacKenzie were shot and seriously injured. It was at that point that, at great personal risk, local unarmed police officers detained Mr MacDonald. In my opinion the actions of those officers was above and beyond the call of duty. I do hope that when the dust settles on this they receive the highest commendation for their actions on that day.

Just to fill you in, my involvement subsequently has been the pastoral care of the family of the man who was shot dead. They are part of my congregation. I am also a personal friend of Rowena MacDonald. I would say I was a personal friend, in fact, of Finlay as well. I also work part time for the local development trust, so in the immediate aftermath we were able to employ our resources to support the families and the wider community. On the day of the incident, one of our local councillors suggested that I join the multi-agency emergency liaison group, so for about a month after the incident I was involved with the ELG in organising care and communicating options for care within the community. I have seen first hand the multiple agencies that were involved in the response to the incident.

Q32            Chair: Thank you for that. The whole Committee want to thank and congratulate you for the work that you have done in offering pastoral care to the community. We know that has been very important and I am pretty certain it has helped a number of people you represent, so thank you from this Committee.

Could you talk to us a little bit about the impact this has on small rural communities like the ones that you serve? How has the response to this manifested? What issues do you encounter in your work when something like this visits a community?

Gordon Matheson: It is probably important to understand that Sleat, the southern-most peninsula on the Isle of Skye, is ranked 122nd for access deprivation on the Scottish index of multiple deprivation. We are among the most remote communities in Scotland. That impacts us in all sorts of ways. On the day of the incident, for example, Police Scotland’s response was that an armed response vehicle from Inverness would be the first responder to a firearms incident. Obviously, that firearms officer team did not arrive on time and the incident was brought to a conclusion by unarmed local officers.

There are issues around the subsequent trauma that people have experienced and accessing counselling care for that. Rowena, for example, when she was admitted to Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow, was able I think twice a week to have sessions with trauma counsellors for the four or five weeks that she was in hospital there. Following her discharge to a local address back here in Skye, she has only once been able to access a face-to-face appointment with a counsellor and that was because she happened to be readmitted to Raigmore Hospital on that occasion. She has not had access to any further counselling in person beyond that.

The experience of Lynn-Anne, the wife of John, the man who was shot dead, is far beneath that. She has only managed one face-to-face appointment, as I understand it, with trauma counsellors. The rest of her interactions with them have been over the phone and that has been very challenging for her.

I should say that these families have between them 10 children under the age of 20. The kids have been able to access good educational psychologist support through the schools. The headteacher in the local primary school and the headteacher in Portree High School have been well supported in what they have been able to deploy, but the challenges facing the adults is probably the most significant. The wider family circle around them have had very little in the way of support as well.

I can go on. More widely, across our community there are multiple people struggling with what I think could legitimately be called vicarious trauma. Because we are such a close-knit community and everybody has a connection with these families, either through the school or through work in the community, a lot of people have picked up, as you do with traumatic experiences, some of the trauma themselves and are carrying that. Even the kids in schoolmy own daughter, for example, is a little bit scared to sleep in the room closest to the front door.

Q33            Chair: Thank you. You have presented a very full picture. I note that in your response you mentioned what was also reported about the police as first responders and the distance to come to small rural communities such as Sleat. I think we are all familiar with the geography that you represent. I will come back to that, but we do not have all that much time and we are keen to hear from you about this in particular.

In what you have observed as the aftermath to this particular incident, what are your views about the current firearms regulations, particularly when it comes to rural, remote communities like your own? Is there a sense that people no longer feel safe around this now? Is there an ongoing concern and worry that something like this might happen again? Tell us a little bit about the feeling and sense there is and the response concerning some of the regulations we have around firearms licensing.

Gordon Matheson: In the community locally there has been some surprise around the application for a gun licence in this particular incident. I know that is one of the PIRC inquiries, but one of the issues that has come to light, and I do not think this is too much of a stray into that reserved area, is that canvassing for favourable character references is one of the things people found very difficult.

Chair: Canvassing for favourable references? That means people who are looking to get a gun licence are going around looking for people to be one of the character references—is that what you are referring to?

Gordon Matheson: Yes. At the moment, you can trawl around as long as you like until you find a couple of people willing to give you a reference. Then the onus is on those who declined to give you a reference to relay their concerns to the police. That is maybe one thing that locally we feel there can be a lot of changes made to.

One change in particular might be, to echo what Dr North from the GCN was saying, having a family input to the licensing process. That would be absolutely fantastic. In this instance, in the situation here, both of Mr MacDonald’s siblings, who live locallyhis sister and brotherdid not know that he was applying for a firearm and did not know that he actually had a firearm. That information to them was quite shockingthat they had not been consulted or asked to give a reference at all.

There is a question as well, I suppose, around how you could manage that. It is interesting. You were talking to Dr North about the starting point in the licensing process; to my mind, the starting point is when an individual decides they would like a gun. It may be that perhaps a change that needs to happen is that before you ask anyone for a reference you must be in possession of an application reference number, so that for anyone you ask you must provide them with an application reference number. If they have concerns, which they might not express to youthey might say, “Och no, I don’t want to do that,” or “I don’t get involved in that sort of thing”; whatever it might betheir concerns can be relayed in connection to the reference for the application that is being made. Do you understand what I am saying?

Chair: Yes, we will definitely come back to some of these points. Thank you for that. I am keen to give some of the other Committee members an opportunity to ask questions. Douglas Ross wants to come in.

Q34            Douglas Ross: Thank you, Mr Matheson, for joining us today. To follow up on that point, do you think that the canvassing of support is more difficult for people to deny in a more remote and rural area where everyone knows everyone? If someone said no in Elgin, my area, you might not see them again for weeks or months, but in your community you see them almost daily. Is there almost a bit of peer pressure that someone feels, “Maybe I had better sign up to support that”?

Gordon Matheson: I think there is. I was thinking through the historical context for the very high firearms level that there is in the Highlands, and I suspect it is related directly to crofting. In fact, the conversation I have had with a lot of people since the shooting is that when someone asks you to give them a character reference the conversation goes something like this: “Can you help me out?” The feeling is that you are helping the individual procure a gun licence. You are not giving a character reference primarily to protect your community; you are giving a reference to help the individual get a gun.

There are historical reasons for that. These are crofting communities where vermin control was a serious issue. If you were a crofter with a small flock of sheep, a den of foxes might seriously threaten maybe not your livelihood but your subsistence livelihood in farming and crofting. Having a pool of people with firearms was always a help in the community, so there was that sense of helping each other out. My own village had 20 crofts when it was first crofted in the middle of the 19th century. On these 20 crofts there are now 60 homes, a quarter of which are holiday homes and rentals. Only one person now keeps livestock. My village has gone from 20 crofters to one person looking after livestock, which to my mind means there is one person who has a legitimate reason to have a firearm for vermin control. There is not a plague of rats across the Highlands that we need to deal with with shotguns. The sense that you are helping out somebody I think does create an awful lot of pressure to give a favourable reference when you may have reservations.

Q35            Douglas Ross: Let me move slightly away from firearms, since we have you here on such an important issue for your community. One thing you did not mention in terms of the response was how the media reacted, positive or negative. As soon as I heard about this, I was worried about the impact of these small communities then becoming a national story. How did that play out? Please be brief, because the Chair needs to go around a number of Members, and then I have one other point.

Gordon Matheson: Yes, the first couple of days were very difficult. There were long-lens cameras pointed at the MacDonald home, at the MacKinnon home and I think over in Dornie as well. I don’t know about John Don and Fay as well. The first couple of days there were challenges to it, and the community as a whole were very grateful to our local MP, Ian Blackford, for the efforts that he and also Police Scotland made to suppress the level of media interest. Fair play to the media as well: when it came to John’s funeral the media were asked to stay away; I conducted that funeral myself and the media did not intrude on the day and that was very welcome. They responded well, but I think that the initial fears were valid.

Q36            Douglas Ross: You mentioned about the police originally. I know some of the officers up there and I fully concur with you that they should be praised for their efforts in bringing a terrible situation like that under control, along with others in the community. When that call went in, with multiple injuries and victims, and a number of weaponsknives and then gunsthe response from the police centrally was to send a unit from Inverness. That is what you said in your evidence. For the record, how long would that have taken for an armed response unit to get from Invernesssay from headquarters in the centre of Invernessto you? How did the rurality affect not just the police response but the medical response? Clearly, there were significant injuries and, sadly, one fatality. They did not just have to go to local hospitals or to Raigmore but further afield. How did your location impact that?

Gordon Matheson: Inverness to Skye, where we stay, is a two-hour drive under good conditions.

Douglas Ross: Not a great road.

Gordon Matheson: It is not a great road, no.

Douglas Ross: It is not a great road for a blue-light callout; thats the point I am making.

Gordon Matheson: No, not at all. I understand that there is a Facebook group, Skye to Inverness road watch, which on the day was buzzing with conversations about these police outriders and blue lights travelling through on the day. It was very high profile. It is a two-hour response time to Skye. That would be a fair estimate, probably less to Dornie where Finlay was arrested.

Q37            Douglas Ross: And on the rurality for the health service and that medical response?

Gordon Matheson: On the medical response, Skye has two ambulances, generally speaking one for the north end of Skye and one for the south end and Lochalsh. On the day, the first ambulance that was despatched was called out to Tarskavaig to the MacDonalds’ home, where Rowena had been stabbed. That ambulance arrived with, I understand, some deficiencies in the equipment they were carryingyou may have to wait for official reports to confirm the extent of that. Rowena needed airlifting to Glasgow. The family are hugely appreciative of the charity air ambulance service that despatched a helicopter to lift her, but one point to note is that that helicopter does not have the range to get from its base to Skye and then back again. Having stabilised Rowena and got her loaded up, I understand that the helicopter had to then go and refuel at a local airstrip before transporting her to Glasgow.

Q38            Wendy Chamberlain: Thank you very much, Mr Matheson, for being with us today. In your evidence you have already referenced PIRC, the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner for Scotland. You will be aware that it investigates all acts and incidents involving the police in relation to firearms. Obviously, I do not expect you to know what the process should be, but I would be grateful for any commentary you have on what its investigation has been to date and how that has been conducted.

Gordon Matheson: The one thing I can say is that the family of John MacKinnon, who was killed, are really appreciative of the PIRC inquiry because of what the PIRC inquiry has so far exposed, and the disclosures that have been made to the family have been helpful. Beyond that, I am not in a position to comment much more.

Wendy Chamberlain: I am grateful for that. It sounds good that the family have been well consulted and kept informed, but I am conscious that the report has not been released as yet. Nevertheless, it sounds like the PIRC intervention has been a positive experience. That is the only question from me.

Q39            Mhairi Black: To move away slightly from the tragedy that happened in your community and look at the system itself, one of the complaints we have heard is that the firearms licensing system is collapsing in a sense and that there are far too many delays. The pandemic has also worsened these delays. Could you tell us your view on that and how high up in the priority list you think fixing that should be?

Gordon Matheson: I think it should be high on their priorities. The point is that a firearm is a lethal weapon and we need to do the very best we can to ensure that those who bear these weapons are fit and proper people to have access to them.

To come back to our situation, the local perception here was that that perhaps was not the case. That maybe comes back then to a question of resourcing. How centralised was information around the application process? What volume of applications were the processing officers dealing with? The volume of community input into the process is challenging as well. I think there has to be a high level of resource going into this.

I would agree with the call that those who are applying for the privilege of having a weapon—it is not a right but a privilegeshould bear the full cost of that privilege. When these things go catastrophically wrong, the cost to the taxpayer is vastly higher. Mr MacKenzie, who was shot in Dornie, was in hospital, I understand, for seven weeks. That is an appalling cost to the taxpayer, never mind the personal cost to him. Those applying I think should cover the resourcing cost for this process.

Q40            Mhairi Black: Thank you. If it is all right, Chair, I have now formulated my question for Dr North. It follows on from the point that Mr Matheson has just made. To go back to firearms licensing, you rightly pointed out that if you are getting an HGV licence, or any other kind of licence, the onus is on the individual to cough up for it and to provide what is necessary. In your opinion, why do you think firearms are the outlier in that?

Dr North: For far too long it was thought that this was a service to the shooter and therefore the state should be giving them something. That is an attitude that certainly was there when I first started getting involved in the campaign and it is still there. You still hear this expression, “We are not getting a good enough service.” To some extent, if you want a good service, pay for it. Even if it were a service, you should not be getting a service on the cheap. It is the taxpayer and the public who are paying the price.

Q41            Mhairi Black: Mr Matheson, with that in mind, if we have certain industries, for instancewhether it is agriculture or gun merchants, country sports or whateverthat are complaining that these delays are affecting their business, do you think there is an argument that those industries should bear more of the cost if their businesses require it?

Gordon Matheson: I can’t comment on the recreational shooting business and industryI have no experience of it; I do not know what the business model there is—but I work part time for the local development trust and run the commercial activities in a community-owned forest. We employ people in deer management, and it is hard to control vermin around animal feed stocks and shooting foxes. All these services that we rely on are things that we pay for. Whatever your business model for owning a gun is, you just have to factor in the costs.

If you are wanting to provide the commercial services for gun ownership, stalking or vermin control or whatever else, these are costs that you can factor into what you do commercially with your gun. I can’t comment on what you do with the recreational shooting side of things.

Chair: We just have a couple of questions left, from Deirdre Brock and Sally-Ann Hart.

Q42            Deidre Brock: Thank you, Mr Matheson, for coming along and speaking to us today. I asked Dr North about it being difficult for people other than chief police officers, and for licence holders and GPs, to raise concerns about aspects of someone’s behaviour or changed family circumstances. Could you give us some views on that? Dr North suggested a hotline possibly had been looked into in the pasthe was not quite sure where things were with that at the moment—and that might be where people could raise concerns about an individual. Obviously without referencing the specifics of the case you are involved in at the moment, do you have some impressions around that?

Gordon Matheson: The primary difficulty is that, for good reasons, you don’t want to know or you don’t want public awareness of who everyone with a firearm is. Like I said, in the case here his own family members did not know he had a gun and if they had any concerns about his health or fitness to have that weapon, they had no reason to raise them because they didn’t know there was a firearm there.

One of the things that has certainly been discussed in the community here in Sleat has been some mechanism for a community input to firearms licensing. I don’t think that will work in the same way as planning does, where there is a public declaration that such and such a person wants a gun, but I wonder if there is a role for community councils, which is the lowest tier of elected office in Scotland, to have an inputto be asked to give a reference. That way at least community councillors would have a collective awareness of who had guns locally. If there are concerns about someone’s mental health or someone’s domestic situation being expressed, at least community councillors would have the awareness that this was something to flag within the community. It is very challenging, though: if you don’t know someone has a gun, why would you think to raise that with the police or their GP?

Deidre Brock: That is a very good point and one we will dwell upon further, I am sure. Thank you.

Q43            Sally-Ann Hart: You said no one knew that Mr MacDonald had a gun, so in terms of his mental health, that was not flagged up. Do you think more should be done if people have a history of, for example, anger management—that that should be taken into account when granting a firearms licence? Is that part of mental health?

Gordon Matheson: I don’t know the answer to the latter questionwhether that is part of mental health, I don’t knowbut it should be considered, yes. That is what you want from referees.

It comes back to my point about canvassing for favourable references. I know in our community the referees who did give favourable references in Finlay’s case, or certainly felt they had, are wracked with guilt because they never expected the outcome to be what it was. In hindsight, perhaps a firearms certificate shouldn’t have been issued. The difficulty I suppose is you can canvas for favourable references, so concerns might never make it into the hands of the reviewing officer. That makes the job of the police in determining whether someone should have a certificate or not very challenging.

I have a lot of friends in the police who handle firearms renewals and a lot of them will tell me it is a part of the job, but it is a part of the job they don’t like because the responsibilities are so significant.

Q44            Sally-Ann Hart: Looking at what the Scottish or UK Government could do, do you think they should be looking at policy changes to support mental health in firearms holders, or should there be better communication between GPs and policeor both—albeit this particular case was to do with not GPs and the police but the fact that the referee system was flawed?

Gordon Matheson: In the current system in Scotland I understand GPs have disclosure in a person’s medical records that they are dealing with a firearm certificate holder. If a GP has a concern that a firearm holder may use that weapon unlawfully, either on themselves or on someone else, there is a very simple process for them to alert the police. That mechanism already exists and the onus is on the GP to make an assessment in cases of mental health or other illness as to whether or not a firearm should be taken from an individual.

Q45            Sally-Ann Hart: That system did not work here, did it?

Gordon Matheson: Certainly Finlay’s firearm was not taken from him.

Chair: Thank you, Mr Matheson, that was a fascinating session. I know we have had lots of difficulties, and I can see Wendy Chamberlain raising a hand, but I am conscious we have the next session.

Q46            Wendy Chamberlain: Mr Matheson, you commented on Dr North’s evidence on several occasions and we would usually have you both sitting beside one another. You have given some practical and realistic suggestions to the Committee. Dr North, do you have any final comments?

Chair: Very briefly please.

Dr North: First of all, I offer my great sympathy. It is an area of Skye I know quite well. I felt very pained by what had happened for all sorts of reasons. I agree with everything you have been saying, Mr Matheson, about the need for changes to the licensing system so that we do not find that people are getting by on referees who are touted for in the way that you have indicated.

Chair: Excellent. Thank you, Mr Matheson, for joining us today. I know there have been lots of difficulties but we are delighted we were able to get you, even though it was down the line. Maybe next time we will get you in person and hopefully under much happier conditions. I thank both you and Dr North for appearing at this evidence session.

 

Examination of witnesses

Witnesses: Fraser Lamb and Dr Colin Shedden.

Q47            Chair: We now resume our session on firearms licensing regulations in Scotland. We are joined by a couple of guests from the shooting fraternity. We will let them explain who they are, who they represent and anything by way of a short introductory statement.

Dr Shedden: I am Colin Shedden, the Scottish Director for the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, BASC. It is the largest shooting organisation in the UK: we have 150,000 members in total, with 11,500 residing in Scotland. I have been closely involved in firearms licensing and most aspects of shooting for the last 20 or 30 years.

Fraser Lamb: I am Fraser Lamb, the Firearms Licensing Adviser for the Scottish Association for Country Sports. I provide the secretariat for a group, the Scottish firearms and explosives licensing practitioners forum, which represents all the shooting organisations, the Scottish Government, the police and the industrial users of firearms such as NatureScot and Forestry and Land Scotland. I have been shooting since I was a wee boy. The Scottish Association for Country Sports currently has about 10,000 members nationally throughout the UK. In a previous life I was a police officer for Police Scotland: I spent 20 years in the CID and in the last four years I was head of firearms licensing in Police Scotland.

Q48            Chair: Thank you both for your concise introductory statements and comments. We know that Scotland is a large rural area, there are extensive farming interests, recreational shooting goes on in Scotland and, indeed, we are renowned for some of the opportunities that exist with Scotland. Do you think what we have in place is satisfactory and appropriate for the activities you support? If it is not, what would you look at to possibly change in order to try to improve the system? I am thinking more in terms of the community safety aspect of the issues that we are looking at here.

Dr Shedden: Certainly from a public safety perspective, my briefing document stated towards the end that we felt that the legislation that is in place just now is more than adequate and is sufficient for the needs of protecting public safety. Obviously as a shooter myself and representing a shooting organisation, there are a number of tweaks to the legislation that we would like, but that would suit our needs, and maybe even police licensing efficiency, more than it would public safety.

From a public safety perspective, especially the changes that have been introduced over the last six years, and the work the firearms licensing practitioners group has also done to bring to the fore issues relating to mental health, I don’t think there is much more that can be done within the legislative framework we have now to improve things from a public safety perspective.

Q49            Chair: Mr Lamb, do we have the right type of regulatory framework? Is it working? What should we be looking at if any improvements are required?

Fraser Lamb: The Act is entitled the 1968 Act—it has been a long time in essence, although it has been updated on fairly regularly with various insertions. I think it is fit for purpose in relation to what it does. I think the police understand it, the judiciary understands it, the solicitors understand it and the shooting organisations understand it. It provides quite a high bar in relation to the tests that are required to be carried out. As long as professional curiosity is displayed by the police in relation to doing everything they possibly can to make sure that the person is a suitable person to possess firearms, I think the legislation backs it up and is robust enough and is satisfactory. That is reflected in the variable levels of criminality displayed by legitimate firearms holders.

Q50            Chair: Absolutely, and I think it is fair to highlight—it probably was not highlighted sufficiently in the first session—that we do have about the most stringent firearm regulations in the world, that levels of criminality are low and that incidents like we observed in Skye are extremely rare.

In your particular associations and with the groups you represent, what can you both do to encourage people to use firearms responsibly? What opportunities do you have to monitor your members? Is there anything you can do if you see difficulties and issues emerging that you could flag up?

Fraser Lamb: I think Colin and I agree about this. If we were made aware of any concerns in respect of someone’s suitability for firearms, there is a close enough relationship between the shooting organisations and Police Scotland to be able to communicate, and quite quickly communicate, if there were any concerns.

Q51            Chair: Have you done it before? Have you ever said, “This concerns me and I think this should be flagged up and relayed back to the police”? Has that ever happened in your organisation before?

Fraser Lamb: Yes, it has.

Chair: We do not need the specifics.

Fraser Lamb: No, I understand that. Members may phone us with concerns and not know what to do about it and therefore I, because of my police service and intelligence background, know how to sanitise that and to pass it on to the police so that they can turn it into whatever executive action is required—it may be Police Scotland; it may be further down south. If members have concerns about information that they have and they want to pass it on, I have been, with the agreement of the member—or maybe not always with the agreement of the member—and can be that conduit to pass on intelligence information.

Q52            Chair: Dr Shedden, how do you exercise this obligation and responsibility you have when it comes to your members? The same question as to Mr Lamb: have you ever flagged up an issue that you have identified?

Dr Shedden: Yes. I have been doing the job for almost 30 years and there have been occasions when I have received information that has caused some concern and I have had discussions with Police Scotland or the previous constabularies that were dealing with it and resolution has been reached.

The other thing we would like to point out is that we have legislation which ensures a certain basic standard of behaviour and performance, but we do everything we possibly can to raise standards through training courses, codes of practice and things like that. Even at the weekend we had eight people in the office for four days and they were being trained as recreational deerstalkers, doing their deerstalking certificate 1. There is no legal requirement to do it but they all wanted to do it voluntarilyto come forward and improve their standards related to their shooting and also with respect to animal welfare. The shooting community does take that responsibility very seriously and does submit itself to voluntary training to raise standards.

Q53            Chair: You would offer extra courses and training in how to handle firearms responsibly?

Dr Shedden: Yes.

Q54            Chair: Is that offered by the organisations you represent, Mr Lamb?

Fraser Lamb: Yes, when required. Looking at, for instance, the submission that we put in, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association does that, the Gun Trade Association does that, and the Scottish Countryside Alliance does it as well and gives practical advice as well as on-the-job advice.

Q55            Chair: Notwithstanding the huge rural area we have and the necessity for firearms to be a feature of the rural community, why are there so many guns in Scotland? Looking at some of the figures, it surprised the Committee to see just how many guns are out there just now. Are they all necessary? I am not going to call it a problem, but what is the issue that there are so many guns available in circulation?

Dr Shedden: You may think there are so many guns out there in Scotland, and certainly the proportion of people in northern Scotland who have access to firearms is much greater than in the more central belt—hardly surprising really—but the most interesting thing is with a shotgun certificate you can basically have an unlimited number of guns. The average is about two or three. People, when they get a shotgun certificate, may have a gun or two guns for slightly different applications, but they do not have vast collections of guns. I would argue that we do not have a very large number of guns out there. People have what they need for their recreational or professional shooting activities.

Q56            Chair: Briefly, from your experience, Mr Lamb, do you not think there are too many gunsnot that we want to get into the Goldilocks question of too many or too few?

Fraser Lamb: No. I obtained the up-to-date figures this morning from Police Scotland.

Q57            Chair: Can you share them with the Committee?

Fraser Lamb: There are 59,391 firearmsthat is, riflesin Scotland and 110,106 shotguns recorded on the system in Scotland. That equates to just under 170,000 guns. There were 60,743 at the end of September when the paperwork went in, which is only just over 1% of the population of Scotland who have access to firearms.

I don’t think Scotland is awash with guns. The legislation says that people have to have a good reason to have the gun and therefore during the inquiry process that will be ascertained. Does someone have good reason to have a shotgun certificate or alternatively a firearms certificate? With a firearms certificate it is for each individual gun that you have to have a good reason for. That, therefore, is examined and I know that having been the operational head of it for four years between 2013 and 2017. People have to have a good reason. They don’t just get them because they wish to have them.

Chair: We will come on to the licensing arrangements and how guns are secured in a minute but I want to hand over to my colleague, Sally-Ann.

Q58            Sally-Ann Hart: Looking at the adequacy of the GPs and the medical reports, do you think there has been an effect on the requirement for applicants to obtain a GP report? Has that had an effect on firearms licensing?

Dr Shedden: Yes, I think it has had an effect because people realise that their application for renewal will not now progress unless the GP has effectively said that they see no reason why this person should not have access to firearms. Those who think that their GP might see a reason, they may pull back, they may withdraw from shooting. Fraser may have more operational information relating to this than I do, but the shooting community is, generally speaking, law abiding and the vast majority do not go about trying to deceive the police or doctors about their medical condition. I think it is working just now, but the mental health aspect is one that we do need to explore further. We need to encourage people, if they do feel unwell, to go and see a GP or get professional assistance.

Q59            Sally-Ann Hart: Mr Lamb, do you have anything to add to that around how applicants might be affected by having to obtain a GP report to renew?

Fraser Lamb: I have seen this from both sides. I was there and was one of the principals for introducing on 1 April 2016 the GP forms into Police Scotland, which was five or six years beyond what England and Wales have done. I think people initially were very nervous about it. I think the unintended but probably foreseeable consequence is that it may stop people with mental health concerns going to their doctor. We have done a lot of work on trying to stop that or trying to advise people accordingly with the actuality rather than the myth. The myth is that if you went to your doctor with a mental health problem, the police will take your guns away from you. That may be, but it is a call for the GP—not the guns operation or the removal of the guns but whether the GP thinks it is sufficient enough and the concerns are sufficient enough to tell the police.

Q60            Sally-Ann Hart: Would the GPs err on the side of caution?

Fraser Lamb: Yes, very much so. I am aware of a number of these cases from the advocacy side where a referral has been made to police but the police are fairly pragmatic, practical and experienced about this. They go back to the doctor, have a discussion with the doctor and then make that decision. The decision to issue the certificate or what to do with the certificate is purely the police chief officer’s decision; it is not the GP's. The GP is just a source of information about it. We have proactively sought to address that in relation to publication of the Firearms and Mental Health awareness leaflet, and literature is available to employers, which has been issued by the GWTthe Gamekeepers Welfare Truston the importance of mental health matters. It outlines what will happen, what they have to do to deal with that and sources of help and advice.

Q61            Sally-Ann Hart: Dr Shedden, you mentioned that perhaps things need to be further looked at with mental health and firearms certificates; in what way?

Dr Shedden: I was referring to the recent publication of the leaflet that Fraser referred to. This originated during lockdown when we recognised that isolation could act as another driver towards negative mental health. It also recognised the long-standing belief that men in particular were reluctant to discuss health issues, especially mental health issues, and it is predominantly men who have firearms in society in Scotland and in Great Britain. Its role is to encourage those men and women who may experience mental health challenges to seek advice.

The other important role is that we hope to get this quite widely distributed in shooting households, GP surgeries and elsewhere, so that friends and families will also come across it and recognise that they also have an obligation to possibly report friends or family members who may be suffering from ill health and be certificate holders.

Q62            Sally-Ann Hart: Of your members in the association, do you know of any who have not renewed their licence because of mental health concerns? Have they reported anyone?

Dr Shedden: Yes. At the start of this process I was made aware of a couple of members who had not declared to the police on their renewal forms that they had suffered from a mental health condition, and when their doctors realised that they were certificate holders, they informed the police. These people then basically agreed to surrender their firearms and their certificates and step back from shooting, which is the situation as it should have been when they were initially diagnosed. I am aware of a small number of people that were initially picked up by the system.

Q63            Sally-Ann Hart: Thank you. Mr Lamb, do you think there needs to be a sense of proportionality when it comes to mental health? Do you think it needs to be a blanket degree, or does it depend on the type of mental health that one suffers? I am interested to see the leaflet. If someone has mild depression or is feeling low, that is one type of mental distress, whereas someone who might have psychosis might not even realise they have that. It is about the insight that people might have into their—

Fraser Lamb: Within the group that published this leaflet, which I think had been shared with the secretariat, it is recognised that one in four of the population will at some time in their life suffer a mental health challenge. Within the group there were specialists from rural mental health organisations who were able to advise on the contents of that.

Without a shadow of a doubt there is a sense of proportionality. There are some very pragmatic people sitting in the management positions of firearms licensing in Police Scotland who carry the burden of the risk in relation to making these decisions. Form 201 has been changed and evolved over the years but in its most recent iteration it talks about whether you have ever suffered from an illness. Beforehand it did not use the word “ever”; now it says “ever”. Members phone me up to say, “It was years ago; it doesn’t matter,” but it says on form 201, “Have you ever” and you have to declare that, because if you do not declare it then it is an offence.

The declaration does not necessarily mean that you will be refused a certificate, because it may be historical, it may be that it is well managed. Conversely, it may be that it is chaotic and a decision has to be made about the guns very quickly. There is very much a sense of proportionality in relation to what there is. Bear in mind that there are number of tools in the toolbox of police officers or managers in the police service to deal with these sorts of issues, and it may be that the guns are removed until the person is better or the certificate is revoked until the person is better. Because someone is revoked does not necessarily mean that they can’t go back or they can’t come back once they are better.

Q64            Sally-Ann Hart: They can be suspended for a while.

Fraser Lamb: There is no provision in the legislation for a suspension but there is a very pragmatic attitude taken in relation to the removal of the firearms. Without a shadow of a doubt, the primary role of the police is public safety. If there was any doubt—if there is a real doubtthe guns have to come away. I use the term just put a foot on the ball”: find out what the story is and what the background is, then once you have gathered all that information to make an assessed decision then you make that decision on whether it was safe to return the guns or, alternatively, to revoke the person or refuse the person.

Q65            Sally-Ann Hart: I have one more question, not to do with mental health but on previous convictions. If someone has had a previous conviction for, let’s say, assault, or they have had a sentence for anger management or something, is that something that might prevent them from obtaining a firearms certificate?

Fraser Lamb: You have to look at it holistically. Did the assault occur when the boy was 17, which was 30 or 35 years ago, and that 17-year-old will be a different person as a mature man? If it had just happened very recently then my view was that the greatest time and distance between the event happening and the decision getting made was better. It would be taken on the circumstances that were represented at that particular time. It may be that someone was arrested for drunk and incapable in Rothesay when they were a young boy or a young girl and a number of years later it is a historical matter. It is about what are the circumstances now.

Mhairi Black: Again: proportionate.

Fraser Lamb: Very much so.

Q66            Mhairi Black: You may have heard in the previous panel that we mentioned the delays in the firearms licensing system just now. What has your experience been of that delay? What impact has there been on your respective organisations and people who use guns? Can you think of any practical solutions to speeding up that delay?

Dr Shedden: The delays that are widely reported occur predominantly in the English and Welsh constabularies, and also in Northern Ireland. Scotland is something of an exemplar just now because 99.53% of certificates are renewed within the appropriate timescale, whereas in England and Wales there are widespread delays, and in Northern Ireland there are very extreme widespread delays.

The system in Scotland does appear to be working well and it seems to be working well not by shortcutting the investigation that is required to grant a renewal by Police Scotland but by doing it efficiently and ensuring that systems are running well. A number of the submissions that have been put to this Committeeseparate from those from Fraser and myself—have pointed out that other constabularies in other parts of Great Britain should be looking at Scotland as an exemplar. Delays are not that common in Scotland. I do have some members, who if they are watching this, will be jumping up and down saying, “I have been waiting three months for my application to be processed,” but that is not necessarily seen as a very long delay compared with elsewhere in the country.

Fraser Lamb: I agree and I would take that back to the formation of Police Scotland. I inherited at that time eight different ways of working with the legacy forces. Bear in mind that it then became one chief constablewe made the decisions on their behalfand we completely reorganised the system because in some places in the country it worked well and in other places it did not.

We had the opportunity to make our workforce much more flexible. Because of decisions and changes to legislation in the 1990s, certificates went from three years to five years. That meant there were three busy years and two not as busy years, but still busy. The resources I inherited then did not have the capacity to deal with the three busy years but had over-capacity to deal with the two quieter years. What we did was throttle back to the resources you needed for the two years and then supplemented it with police officers, who are a more flexible resource but are also more present in the community, especially in rural communities. Therefore you had the local beat cop for an area in Dumfries and Galloway and that police officer would now be picking up firearms licensing enquiries and going to see farmers and people who stayed in the more rural communities who, by definition, do not see the police as often as you might in inner-city areas.

I am reflecting on my previous occupation, but that model of flexibility based around cost and maximisation of resources for that cost and the decisions made then have borne fruit. I reflect on the very few calls I get from members in Scotland about efficiency or time delays in relation to certification. It is a completely different ball game for members in England and Wales.

Q67            Douglas Ross: What was your immediate reaction, beyond the sympathies for those involved in the communities, when you heard that a licensed gun holder had committed these offences? What did you immediately think? Do you have a concern that this may prompt further calls for action? Can you take us through your thoughts on that day or in the days after?

Dr Shedden: I was working for BASC at the time of the Hungerford tragedy and Dunblane as well. Inevitably, these very sad memories do have an impact on your thought processes for the future; what could this meanapart from tragedy for the families involved, of course?

I also reflect on the fact that it is highly unusual for such an incident to take place, especially in northern Scotland, because, as my submission pointed out, northern Scotland may have the highest density of firearms ownership pro rata anywhere in the UK, certainly anywhere in GB, but it also is the area of the lowest firearms-related crime.

While I may not react as much when I hear of someone being shot in Glasgow, knowing that it would probably be with an illegally-held handgun, I certainly react to instances in a rural community that could have been committed with a legally-held shotgun or firearm. I am not sure which, so I cannot comment on that. Yes, we are very concerned, but we are also pleased that such incidents are so rare, especially in rural Scotland.

Fraser Lamb: I agree with Colin. First, all these headlines of families and deaths and left loved ones—having been in the CID for 20 years, I understand the tragedy that that brings about. In relation to firearms licensing, it is very often that you are surprised—“I wonder what happened there.” Obviously we do not know what happened or the matter is sub judice and so on, and the only people who really know about it will be the Crown and the police at this particular time, realistically. We wait to find out what their findings would be in any subsequent review. You have to first look at the tragedy that impacts people, and secondly think that is unusual, especially if it is a certificate holder, because it is so rare.

Q68            Douglas Ross: Sticking with your immediate thoughts or responses, what did you think when you heard this Committee was having a short inquiry? Do you think it was a positive thing so both sides can be heard? Or are you concerned that there may be recommendations for things to go further?

Dr Shedden: I certainly regard it as a positive thing because I did want to get across the fact that, as I said before, northern Scotland, or rural Scotland, has a very high proportion of firearms per capita but a very low level of firearms-related offences. I am also delighted that we can highlight that over the last two years firearms offences in Scotland have been at their lowest levels ever, since records began. These two figures going together effectively demonstrate what we said right at the start: the current systems that we have in place are probably appropriate to ensure as best we can public safety in Scotland.

Fraser Lamb: I do not think any public examination is a bad thing. It can either reinforce that what we have is good or it can make recommendations about what we think should be improved. While we shooting organisations representing members may not necessarily agree with that, we obviously welcome the opportunity to inject into the decision-making system to try to make it better.

Q69            Douglas Ross: I think it is five years, Mr Lamb, since you ceased to be the operational head for firearms licensing in Scotland.

Fraser Lamb: That is right.

Douglas Ross: Obviously you are looking at it from a different side now, but since then concerns have been raised about policing across Scotland. The chief constable of Police Scotland has publicly said that his budgets are being cut, and officer numbers are now lower than they would have been when you were involved. While you have commented that compared to other parts of the UK the processing of these applications is quite efficient, do you have concerns going forward that if nothing changes and we do have fewer officers available and less funding available to Police Scotland, we could end up in a problem where we slip back in terms of performance for not only your members but the public, who look to these licences for reassurance that those who hold guns can do so safely?

Fraser Lamb: I am aware of internal processes in automation, which have made Police Scotland even more effective—they use the words “the bot does itin relation to coming in and being allocated out to division and so on. While I do not know the actual intricacies of it, I am aware that the managers I speak to speak highly of the system now. It is five years since I left but I am aware that since I left there has been a continuous search for improvement to address budgetary concerns.

Q70            Douglas Ross: You still have systems that did not work between the eight former forces.

Fraser Lamb: It is one system for the whole force.

Q71            Douglas Ross: Well there is but there are still issues—I stay in the former Grampian area—with Grampian and Highland being able to speak to each other. You are saying there are no issues with that and this bot system deals with all the problems.

Fraser Lamb: No. Shogun, which is an ICT system, absolutely is available nationally, without a shadow of a doubt. Processing can take place in Inverness from certificate holders in Dumfries and Galloway. That was always built into the system. I think the automatic bot that they use—and I know very little about itautomates the system. It is just a programme of continuous improvement and continuous efficiency.

It was always a line and whether you crossed it in relation to the risk-assessed visits at renewal, and Covid brought that very much to the fore. A lot of traditions were getting put in the bin at that particular time, or were reassessedthat is probably a better way to describe it. They were reassessed because of the restrictions: would you want a police officer going into your house during the pandemic? Not really, because you do not know who they have been dealing with five minutes before. So work was being done on risk-assessed visits that did not require a police officer to visit all the time, but I believe quite strict criteria were set out in relation to whether someone would be risk assessed by a telephone inquiry or whether there was going to be a visit to the house.

Dr Shedden: I appreciate your concerns, especially with reduced staffing and possibly reduced funding, and that is certainly something I will keep an eye on through the firearms licensing practitioners group that I chair and which the police sit on. We regularly report on both performance and satisfaction levels from our members reporting back. There is that semi-external monitoring of the police firearms licensing function through the practitioners group that I hope would probably pick up any trend towards inefficiency or delay.

Fraser Lamb: If I can come in on that, the practitioners group was set up not as a lobbying organisation at all. It was just the people who had a vested interest in firearms licensing to make sure it was working properly, and to listen to concerns coming back the way, so that police managers could hear what the concerns were coming from the organisations and how we could best resolve them collectively. That might mean the advice goes back to members to say, “This is what you should do; this is what you should not do,constructive advice to make the police job easier.

I think the group works exceptionally well. It has been viewed by visitors from all over the country who come in and the Home Office dials in to listen to what is going on in Scotland, so that is a good thing. It would be a good venue where we could raise concerns, if there were any concernsbudgetary concerns or concerns about falling performance.

Q72            Douglas Ross: You both said in response to my earlier question that you welcome this Committee inquiry, but neither of you think there should be any changes at all.

Dr Shedden: With respect to public safety, I have thought long and hard about it, and cannot see how, under the framework of legislation that we have, we can improve that level of scrutiny and performance with respect to public safety. As I have said, there are a number of areas that we could identify where it could be greatly improved from a shooter’s perspective.

The one area that we do have concern about just now is the fact that GPs are not legally obliged to participate, so they can opt out under the conscientious objector banner. Maybe 10 or 20 of them are doing that in Scotland just now, out of over 1,000 GP practices, so it is a low proportion. If the Home Office was to introduce a statutory requirement for GPs to participate in the process with respect to public safety, we would certainly welcome that. We would certainly welcome either the fee being absorbed into the NHS contract that GPs have or the fee being standardised so that it is not a postcode lottery of £0 or £5 or £10 in parts of Perthshire, for instance, up to £250 in St Andrews and Peebles. It is a postcode lottery and some shooters are paying every five years a considerable amount more to their GP than they are as their contribution to the licence fee.

Fraser Lamb: I agree entirely with what Colin said there.

Q73            Deidre Brock: I want to ask about the recovery of costs to police forces for processing applications and renewals. It seemed to vary quite widely throughout the UK. The cost seemed to go from something like £80 to £500. What might be the reason for that disparity? Can you comment on that?

Dr Shedden: As you probably realise, I deal almost exclusively with Scottish matters so I do not have any detailed knowledge. I think, Fraser, you sit in the fees working group.

Fraser Lamb: Yes. The Home Office is currently examining the fees and it may be better to go to them about that.

Deidre Brock: We can do that.

Fraser Lamb: I think it is fair to say that we have been asked to consider the confidentiality of the discussions that are ongoing about the fees.

Q74            Deidre Brock: I will not push you on that. There is a view that full costs should be recoveredI have certainly read an academic’s suggestion that anything otherwise is a public subsidy for gunsand I wonder if you could respond to that and give us your views on whether a full cost recovery would be considered appropriate by your members? What are their thoughts are on that?

Dr Shedden: Full cost recovery would not be considered favourably by our members. It is a common misperception that everyone who shoots is incredibly wealthy and sums of £200, £300 are total peanuts. I can assure you that those who shoot in Scotland come from all walks of life, all backgrounds and all age groups. A large number of them enjoy free shooting on the foreshore of Scotland, for instance, so they do not need to be wealthy to enjoy shooting in Scotland. I would be very concerned at pricing ordinary working people and retired people out of their recreational interests through this route. I am already concerned that because GPs every five years are charging potentially £250 for their endorsement, some people are effectively being priced out of their sport, so I would be worried about additional costs.

It is only fair that the shooting community does pay its due towards the police for the service that they receive, but I think that society should also subsidise the fact that what we are doing is ensuring public safety.

Fraser Lamb: I fully support what Colin said but I would also add that legislation sets out that people must have a certificate, and then sets out tests that they must passif that is the right wordand be tested against in relation to their suitability. Bearing in mind that the law says you must and therefore it is going to cost you X amount, there is a wider public safety matter in there to make sure the community is all right.

I agree entirely with Colin that not every person who shoots is wealthy. Our membership is not made up of landowners or whatever; it is made up of people who recreationally shoot, control pest species on farms, control these sorts of issues.

Q75            Deidre Brock: Just remind us of the pests that are controlled at the moment or that guns are most suitable for in controlling. Crows, I presume are one.

Fraser Lamb: There are things called the general licences, which set out what people are allowed to shoot and why they are allowed to shoot them, bearing in mind that everything is protected unless it has a closed season or alternatively is subject to a general licence. It would be things like wood pigeons in relation to destruction of crops, carrion crows, the corvids and so onthings that cause great concerns to people, farmers, sheep and so on.

Dr Shedden: Can I just mention deer management, because it is quite interesting? More and more, Governments both here in Westminster and at Holyrood are encouraging people to increase their management of deer. In Scotland, for instance, 30% of the deer are controlled by the public sector organisations like NatureScot and Forestry and Land Scotland, but that means 70% of the deer are controlled in the private sector and the 70% controlling them do so by having firearm certificates that they require to use the rifles that they need legally to shoot the door. Deer management, which is an integral part of the climate crisis and also the biodiversity crisis in Scotland, is predicated upon a considerable number of people having access to suitable rifles for that shooting.

Q76            Deidre Brock: Lastly, one of our previous witnesses proposed the possibility of more transparency about who owns guns in a community and who, therefore, has a licence to use them. What would your members make of that?

Dr Shedden: I think our members would be slightly concerned if their names were to be put on a public register, because a large number of them go about their activities incredibly discreetly, to such an extent that even their near neighbours probably do not know they have firearms. I think from a public safety perspective, it is better that people do not know that guns are stored in private houses, no matter how securely.

Fraser Lamb: The publication or the greater awareness of where guns are would be of significant concern not only to members but probably to the police as well. I can think of lots of reasons why you would not want to do that or would feel that you would not want to do that because people—the vast majority of certificate holdersare responsible. The vast majority of people are responsible and they recognise the security implications of having a gun in their house and it getting recognised.

Q77            Deidre Brock: I have one last questionit is slightly separateon shotgun licences and people being able to have, in effect, as many shotguns as they wish to have. What is the reasoning behind that? It is not something I am familiar with. Why would they need to have

Dr Shedden: They would not necessarily need to, but the shotgun certificate is the same as the air weapon certificate. It basically ensures that the person the police have looked at is suitable to be in possession of either shotguns or air weapons. Then that person could have as many air weapons as they wanted. They could have as many shotguns as they wanted, within reason. Above a certain number, let’s say maybe 12, the police may be looking for increased security but, as I said, very few people have large shotgun collections at home. The average number is probably about two and a half shotguns per person. Although I have the ability with a shotgun certificate to go and buy as many shotguns as I want to, first, I cannot afford to, and secondly, I have no inclination or desire to. I have more than enough in the small number that I have. It is exactly the same for most people.

Fraser Lamb: I think also it is tools for a job. If you have a high-value shotgun that you may use for game shooting, you would be unlikely to want to take that to a salty mudflat to shoot geese on the foreshore, so it is about tools for the job and what is more effective. For instance, a semi-automatic shotgun, if you are shooting pigeons, gives the ability to fire three shots rather than just two.

Q78            Chair: Obviously I accept that not everybody involved in shooting is rich. When it comes to full costs, would there be a case, for example, for full costs to be levied on recreational shooters—because obviously that is what they want to do and something they enjoy, so they should pay for it—and those who work the land, such as farmers, gamekeepers and so on, should not bear the full cost? Would that be, if we were to venture down this avenue, a fair way of dividing this as an issue?

Dr Shedden: It is an interesting concept and one that I think could be fraught with difficulty, because so many people would try to jump to the middle ground between two categories. They may not be a fully employed gamekeeper but they would like to claim that they are a gamekeeper because they feed a duck pond or they have some pheasant feeders or they control rats or pigeons. A lot of people would, in that situation, try to move across into the occupational side for the relief. It could get very confusing.

Q79            Chair: Do you make distinctions in your organisations about the different types of people who use firearmsanecdotally, farmers, recreational shooters and those who are interested in sport? Do you subdivide the groups? Or is it just generally the people who use a firearm?

Dr Shedden: It is generally those who use a firearm. We have age distinctions, so we have reduced subscriptions for young people and the elderly, and also slightly reduced subscriptions for those who are full-time gamekeepers and can demonstrate that they are in full-time employment as a gamekeeper, because we recognise how important they are for the continuation of many aspects of the sport.

Chair: Mr Lamb, you represent a bigger range of groups.

Fraser Lamb: We do not break it down. We offer the same sorts of incentives or discounts to more elderly certificate holders, young people coming through and so on. But to your initial point, I can see lots of challenges. A lot of farmers shoot game recreationallyfor want of a better wordso how do you differentiate between the farmer who goes out with his pals and someone who just goes driven shooting, or controls vermin, pest species on behalf of a farmer?

Q80            Chair: As Dr Shedden will testify, it is not cheap to go on a driven shooting expedition, is it?

Dr Shedden: No, and costs have increased quite dramatically this year, considering the shortage of young birds to populate shoots because of avian influenza in France. I will not go into it the detail, but you are correct that driven shooting can be expensive. However, that is at the top end of the spectrum. From rabbit and pest control up through wildfowling and so on, a lot of what we have is either very affordable or free of charge. There is a wide range of people involved in shooting sports, from some who obviously are wealthy and can afford it to those less fortunate but who can still enjoy the sport.

Q81            Wendy Chamberlain: My questions are about PIRC, and I would be interested to know what engagement you have had. I am sure, Mr Lamb, that you have knowledge from your professional past as well. I was interested in the term professional curiosity”; can you expand a bit more about what you mean by that, Mr Lamb? When you are looking at the firearms sectionas I sort of remember it from my Lothian and Borders dayswhat are you particularly looking for in the people who carry out these assessments?

Fraser Lamb: In my previous role?

Wendy Chamberlain: Yes.

Fraser Lamb: What we want them to do is to look underneath the stones, not just accept things on face value, and then obtain all the information that you possibly could, because that information would then be defensible at a later date should something go wrong. Then it would be a case of, “We have done everything we possibly could have done under the legislation or the guidance that was available to us at that time. In my previous role, it was not a service, for want of a better word: it was a professionally curious enquiry to make sure that the person who was having access to firearms was all right to have them

Wendy Chamberlain: But from a crime-prevention public safety perspective, as opposed to a detection perspective in your time in CID, because that would have been after the event.

Fraser Lamb: Yes, but it was to ensure that public safety was maintained at all times.

Q82            Wendy Chamberlain: Following up on the responses to Ms Brock about community knowledgeI absolutely get what we discussed about knowledge of where firearms are storedI do not know if you were able to hear the previous session but one of the things that came out was that those very close to the individual involved in the incident we are here for today were not aware that he was a firearms licence holder. Unless somebody knows that that person holds firearms, how can they report a potential change in behaviour or a mental health challenge? I would be interested to understand how you think we combat that challenge.

Dr Shedden: Family and friends I would imagine, and certain work colleagues, would probably know that a person has an interest in shooting and may have firearms and may keep them at home. Neighbours may not necessarily know.

The term “professional curiosity is something that came to me very recently. A member phoned up complaining about Police Scotland and said that they were interviewing his son, who was 18, for the renewal of a certificate and they asked the question, “How do you get on with your neighbours?” The father was saying, “What has that got to do with anything?” I was able to point out that it is quite a common cause of conflictconflict with neighboursand there have been at least one, maybe two, situations in England I think where neighbours have ended up shooting each other over things like the height of fences. It is very important that the police, as you say, do investigate thoroughly and even the question, “How do you get on with your neighbours?” could be very revealing and significant in that context.

Q83            Wendy Chamberlain: The certificates were changed from three years to five years, and you talked about the challenges that that presented to the department. In evidence today we heard from the Gun Control Network that they want it to be three years. I would be interested to know what was the reasoning behind the change to five years, given that that seems to have gone contrary to what some of the public safety organisations want to see?

Fraser Lamb: It was in 1994 that that occurred.

Wendy Chamberlain: So a good while ago.

Fraser Lamb: A good while ago. It was post-Hungerford, if I remember rightly.

Wendy Chamberlain: Pre-Dunblane.

Fraser Lamb: Yes.

Dr Shedden: I certainly remember it being a bit of an aspiration of BASC to extend the duration. I think what we are seeing now is an expectation that we could move to 10 years. A number of submissions have pointed out that individual certificate holders are under practical 24-hour-a-day surveillance now: if you go to your GP with a mental health issue it will be reported to police firearms licensing, and if you get involved in a speeding offence it will be reported to firearms licensing very quickly, so there is that continuous surveillance. The fact that something like 90% or 99% of certificates are renewed without issue implies that the renewal process itself is not picking up any issues, so why waste more police time at these renewals when we can extend it to 10 years knowing that we have the comfort that there is almost 24-hour surveillance of certificate holders anyway?

Q84            Wendy Chamberlain: The one other suggestion from the earlier session that I thought was very interesting was about the feeling occasionally in communities where there is maybe a canvassing for refereesthat potentially somebody asks for a referee and if there is a concern they do not give the reference but go elsewhere. The suggestion was that the application has a number and anybody seeking a reference for their application should have to provide that number so that if somebody declines to produce the reference they can then potentially tell the firearms licensing anonymously or in confidence. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on that.

Fraser Lamb: I see no benefit to having a referee because who are you going to ask? You are going to ask your pals who are going to give it to you. You are not going to ask someone who is not going to give you a reference. In the four years that I was a firearms licenser, there was only one occasion when the referee raised a concern. Once.

With an operational head on then—the police probably have a different view nowI saw no practical merit in having referees. Then we go back to professional curiosity. My view was that the police can ask anythingabsolutely anythingto make sure that their decision making is subsequently defensible and they have covered all the bases.

Q85            Wendy Chamberlain: So no matter what the referee says, at the end of the day it is down the firearms officer on behalf of the chief constable?

Fraser Lamb: I have been a referee for a couple of my shooting friends recently and the police officers have been really good because they reinforce the message. For the last one I did, they said to me, “Would you know who to phone if you had concerns about the person?” I was maybe tongue in cheek in being able to answer, I know exactly who because I have the mobile numbers of all the chief inspectors and so on so I would go directly to them,” but they were obviously trying to elicit the answer, “Dial 101.

Q86            Wendy Chamberlain: In some ways that makes the referees part of the eyes and ears, so there is potentially that merit.

Fraser Lamb: I get that, but you could pick it up during the inquiry process. Instead of someone nominating somebody the police officers could fill it out at that particular time and say, “Right, who do you shoot with, who are your friends?” or whatever, and then go out to these people, whereas what we have is one for a shotgun certificate and two for a firearms certificate.

Q87            Chair: Is that a case for tightening up the referee system, if it is done so casually, in terms of who you know and, as we heard, soliciting and touting for a referee? Should we be looking at tightening that up and toughening it up?

Fraser Lamb: I personally do not think there is any need for it, but it could be substituted in relation to a national document, say, for England, Wales and Scotland. There could be one document set—the enquiry form, what checks have to be carried out and so on—which would mean you could compare apples with apples rather than different processes and different enquiry criteria. You could build into that form, which could be produced by the Home Office under the rulesform 201 is produced under the rules and the other forms are produced under the rules; they are statutory forms. There was recently a statutory guidance and you could attach that to a statutory guidance, which would then set out the minimum standards that must be achieved.

I have experienced the variation of professional curiosity between the eight legacy forces of Police Scotland. You could build in the referee part of that inquiry, but I put down my friends. Anecdotally, I used to be involved in interviews for people who were involved in contentious inquiries; it was always people who were supportive of themif they were having an argument with a neighbour, the neighbour was not a referee for them.

Q88            Wendy Chamberlain: It is that consistency that appears to be important but it is also about the fact—this is becoming clearof how central the role of the police is, because at the end of the day if things go wrong they are the people who are responding and they are the ones who have to make the justification, so it needs to be more than a tick-box.

Can I ask about PIRC? Do you have engagement through your bodies with the PIRC, given that they have to investigate any incident involving firearms? What has your experience of that been?

Dr Shedden: There has been some but it has been slightly limited, so I might pass that over to Fraser, but I would like to make one comment about referees. I have been very impressed over the last couple of years. I have been contacted by the police on a number of occasions and been informed that five years ago I may have acted as a referee for someone but I have not been asked to do it this year and have been asked, Is there a reason why Jimmy Smith has not asked you? I say, for instance, “I have not seen Jimmy for four or five years so we have lost touch so he has gone for another referee,” but the police have had that curiosity to ask existing referees is there any reason why they have not acted as a referee this time, which I found very encouragingvery positivebecause it could pick up serious issues.

Fraser Lamb: Should the PIRC contact me—or I would imagine any of the shooting organisations; I am SACS and I am quite sure that for Colin it would be the sameit would be an open door to be able to help them and provide advice.

I have had engagement with the PIRC in my previous role in relation to a couple of incidents. One of their questions was about something that we had not thought about at all to do with the transfer of someone who moves from England and Wales to Scotland. There were two sets of inquiry forms. There was a renewalwe had done this; we had a history—or a grant, which was probably more starting with a completely blank sheet, so what do we need?

There was an enquiry conducted in respect of whether the person had already been granted the certificate by a chief constable in England and Wales or whatever. A tragedy occurred: when someone moved, very quickly after they had moved to Scotland the person took their own life. The PIRC asked me at that time, “Are you happy to take the word of another chief constable on behalf of your chief constable?” There was a lightbulb moment at that point. It was like, “No, I had never thought about that.” So immediately from that day onwards anyone moving from England and Wales to Scotland, or anyone inbound to Scotland, moving address, is subject to the full grant application process. The police then and the police nowI am aware they still do itstart off anew: “Go and see the doctor and go and satisfy yourself that you are happy with this.

I am aware of some circumstances when certificate holders have come into Scotland from England and Wales and they have been revoked or they have lifted up stones and they have found things they do not like that do not meet what the chief constable of Police Scotland would want, and therefore they have been revoked.

Wendy Chamberlain: That is reassuring. Thank you very much.

Q89            Chair: This question was put to Dr North and Mr Matheson. Do you have contact with the Gun Control Network? Do you have conversations with them? Do you sit down with them to look at and address some of their concerns? Is there a sense that you are a community that is involved in this or that issue, with an interest in all of this?

Dr Shedden: I met Mick North outside. I have not seen him for a number of years. I shook his hand and said, “Hi, Mick. How are you doing?” We are reasonably friendly. We have met on a number of occasions in the past but I have not had any direct contact with the Gun Control Network for a number of years. They are not a member of the firearms licensing practitioners group because it is a practitioners group. It is for those who are practically involved.

Q90            Chair: Would you have regular discussions with those who may take a different view about shooting, Mr Lamb?

Fraser Lamb: No, but that is not to say that if that opportunity was available then I wouldnt take it. I think, having reflected on the conversations that we have had today, that we are in position to say that the legislation and the processes in Scotland are robust. We are comfortable about what goes on. There are times when you probably think that Police Scotland are risk averse there or a bit too robust. We are an advocacy organisation and we will engage with Police Scotland and say, “Are you sure about this?” or whatever, and I am aware that others do exactly the same. I am quite comfortable that what goes on in Scotland is robust.

Chair: Thank you both for coming down to speak to us this afternoon. It has been a fascinating couple of sessions. We have learned a lot and I think we are getting a sense of some of the issues and the conversations that are going on in all this. Thank you for coming along today.