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Scottish Affairs Committee

Oral evidence: Firearms licensing regulations in Scotland, HC 710

Monday 31 October 2022

Ordered by the House of Commons to be published on 31 October 2022.

Watch the meeting

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

Questions 91-191


I: Superintendent Steven Duncan, Head of National Firearms and Explosives Licensing, Police Scotland; and Assistant Chief Constable Alan Speirs, Strategic Firearms Commander, Police Scotland.

II: Keith Brown MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Scottish Government; Paul Allen, Team Leader for Building Safer Communities, Safer Communities Directorate, Scottish Government; and Jamie MacQueen, Solicitor, Equalities and Criminal Justice Directorate, Legal Directorate, Scottish Government.

Examination of witnesses

Witnesses: Superintendent Steven Duncan and Assistant Chief Constable Alan Speirs.

Q91            Chair: Welcome to the Scottish Affairs Committee and its second evidence session on firearms licensing regulations in Scotland. On our first panel, we are delighted that two senior police officers are joining us to help with our deliberations. I will let them introduce themselves, starting with you, ACC Speirs.

ACC Speirs: Thank you. Good afternoon, Committee. My name is Alan Speirs. I am one of Police Scotland’s assistant chief constables. I have responsibility for professionalism, governance and assurance as a portfolio, and within that portfolio, on behalf of the chief constable, I have responsibility for matters relating to firearms licensing, among a range of other activities.

Superintendent Duncan: Good afternoon. My name is Superintendent Steven Duncan. I head the national firearms and explosives licensing unit for Police Scotland. I also carry the delegated responsibility on behalf of the chief constable for all firearms licensing matters across the force. Let me say, by way of further context, that the national firearms and explosives licensing unit came into being after the amalgamation of the eight Scottish police forces back in 2013. Clearly, at that point, eight forces did firearms licensing in slightly different ways. The national unit came into being to start to provide more consistency in relation to the delivery of firearms licensing matters. On a day-to-day basis, we oversee the policy and procedures across the force. We have a lot of engagement with key stakeholders that have an interest in firearms licensing matters. We also oversee a lot of the administrative processes as that relates to firearms licensing. The actual inquiries that are carried out with applicants, though, are carried out by local divisional inquiry officers.

Q92            Chair: We are very grateful; thank you very much for your very concise introductions. I will ask a general question to kick off. Obviously, you know why we are doing this inquiry—because of the tragic incident that was witnessed on Skye in the summer. What is your general view about the current arrangements for firearms licensing? Are they adequate? Are they up to date? Are there things that we need to look at? We are looking for just your general views. We will start with you, ACC Speirs.

ACC Speirs: First, the circumstances on Skye are a tragic set of circumstances for everyone involved and the wider community, and certainly the sympathies of Police Scotland remain with the families impacted by that tragic set of circumstances. It does bring matters in relation to firearms licensing into sharp focus.

My perspective in relation to the legislation is that it is, broadly speaking, adequate. We are very efficient in our handling of firearms licensing inquiries. Are there opportunities whereby that legislation could be enhanced and improved? In our professional view, absolutely. There are a number of areas that we will probably try to draw out in the course of the discussion today.

Chair: Do you have anything to add to that, Superintendent Duncan?

Superintendent Duncan: It has been said in other submissions that the legislation is now over 50 years old. Yes, there have been amendments to that legislation over that time, but the existing legislation was an amalgamation of legislation dating even beyond that. I think that, if we were rewriting it from scratch, it would be done in a slightly different way. There are certainly opportunities to be clearer and more concise in relation to what the legislation states, and I can happily go into further detail in relation to that if you wish me to.

Q93            Chair: I am grateful. I know that, when it comes to firearms, we have among the most stringent guidelines and regulations probably across the whole of the world, and incidents like that on Skye are extremely rare, as everybody who has appeared before this Committee has noted, but it did happen. In your view, what went wrong in this case? Obviously, they are, thankfully, very rare instances, and communities have no need to feel alarmed about the situation, but in your view, what went wrong in this case? We will start with you, Superintendent Duncan, for this.

Superintendent Duncan: We are limited from going into too much detail in relation to that at the moment, given that there is a live criminal inquiry and that the circumstances are also being investigated by the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner.

Q94            Chair: There seems to be a great deal of confusion about who has ultimate responsibility for the granting of firearms licences. There is of course more and more involvement with the medical establishment, particularly involving the role of GPs. Who is ultimately in charge of deciding who gets a firearm? Is it more and more predicated on the report from the GP, or is it still the police who are in charge of giving the firearm licence?

ACC Speirs: There is a range of stages in terms of the application for a firearm. The decision to grant a firearm is, as Superintendent Duncan indicated, delegated to our firearms licensing function. In a number of instances, the views, considerations and reports from a GP would be an important part of that stage, but ultimately the responsibility for the granting of the firearm sits with the police and with the delegated authority.

Q95            Chair: How much store do you set by the reports from GPs and the home visits? Just give us an impression of how an assessment is made. Somebody wants to get a firearm. Obviously, you want to make sure that whoever is going to be issued with one is as safe as possible and presents no risk to the community. Just run us through what that process would be, from application to the granting of a licence.

Superintendent Duncan: If you take a firearms application, within that you are looking at the best part of about 50 individual points—checks that take place throughout that inquiry. That is looking at things such as all the referee checks, as you mentioned, and a GP’s assessment. You are looking at the land authority that an individual would have if they are part of an organisation or club. There would be engagement with the club secretary, as well as all the different system checks that would be carried out on our police systems.

Q96            Chair: There seem to be quite a number of firearm licences in issue and operation, particularly in the highlands of Scotland. Does it concern you that there are so many firearms in circulation in areas such as the highlands?

ACC Speirs: When you look at the granting of licences across Scotland, there is a fairly even proportion of licences between the north, east and west of Scotland. When you consider that against the population of Scotland, a relatively small number of individuals carry a licence. That obviously reflects a number of potential firearms that they would have on that licence.

Q97            Douglas Ross: Good afternoon, gentlemen. ACC Speirs, are you saying that if you divide Scotland between north, east and west, it is roughly the same in each geographical area? That is not the evidence that we had last week.

ACC Speirs: It is broadly not dissimilar. When you look at the three areas—

Q98            Douglas Ross: If you take the old eight forces, would the Northern constabulary not have a significantly higher proportion of firearm licences than, say, Lothian?

Superintendent Duncan: If you take the three regions—east, west and north—north has about 50% of the overall certificate holders. Then it is an even split across the east and west, 25% each—so roughly double. But when you overlay crime statistics on top of that, crime is proportionately lower in the north of Scotland.

Q99            Douglas Ross: I understand the sensitivities around this case, but the Committee heard last week from people in the area that their rurality had a big impact on the police response. Would you be able to tell us a bit about how you viewed the police response to that serious incident?

ACC Speirs: Mr Ross, it is really difficult for us to be drawn on specific matters in relation to that incident.

Q100       Douglas Ross: Okay, I will stop that. Hypothetically, if there was an incident with a firearm in a remote area, like Skye, and the closest armed response unit was Inverness, is Police Scotland’s view that that time to get to that remote and rural area is a suitable response? Forgetting this incident, for any similar incident, on those roads and with that distance, is that what Police Scotland would deem acceptable?

ACC Speirs: First, in every instance we would assess. With every report that is made to the police, we look at the threat and risk posed by an incident. We apply some real risk assessment to how we would respond to that incident. Then it is about looking at the most proportionate response that we can send. At times, depending on the rurality of a particular incident, there will be some time taken to attend at that location. But again, we are looking at the deployment of resources right across Scotland, and one of the benefits of being a national force is our ability to draw on resources from different parts of the country.

Q101       Douglas Ross: So absolutely nothing different would have happened in this incident or in my hypothetical Skye incident, because Skye was part of the Northern constabulary, as was Inverness. The same resources would have gone from Inverness to Skye when we had the old eight legacy forces as we do now with Police Scotland, surely.

ACC Speirs: We have a spread of resources across Scotland, and we have looked at the proportionate deployment of, if you like, firearms response vehicles. Again, that is based on where we predict that demand to be. When an incident like Skye does take effect, we have the ability to draw on a greater range of resources, and a greater range of specialist resources, in response to that type of incident. That is one of the great benefits that the communities of the north of Scotland will see.

Q102       Douglas Ross: That was certainly recognised last week, but that is a response after the incident, when people have hopefully been captured and arrested. That response time is still quite significant—would you accept that? The Committee has heard concerns that their location, particularly when the 999 response was originally coming from Inverness—rather than closer officers who are not armed—is a concern for the community in an area that, as the Chair said, has a high proportion of licensed firearms?

ACC Speirs: In an ideal scenario, we would like all of our resources to be on our doorstep, with the ability to respond really quickly. We must look at every incident and its own merits, and look at the most effective and efficient response that we have at that particular time. In this instance, some of the responses from the unarmed officers were remarkable.

Q103       Douglas Ross: It was outstanding, and it was recognised last week. It is good to hear you say that.

Superintendent Duncan: Just to add, if we go back prior to the creation of Police Scotland, all forces did not have a standing authority to carry firearms. The fact that that is now consistent actually allows us to deploy firearms officers more quickly than would ordinarily have been the case.

Q104       Douglas Ross: Again, the Northern did. ACC Speirs, you said your departments are efficient in handling the applications for firearms licences. Do you see that efficiency continuing going forward?

ACC Speirs: The priority of Police Scotland is public safety; it is about protecting our communities. The processes that support firearms licensing in Police Scotland are incredibly important. We pride ourselves on having an efficient and effective process in place that allows us, within the constraints of the legislation, to handle firearms inquiries. There is no doubt that Police Scotland has reformed quite significantly since 2013—there have been huge savings in the public sector—and we have a large proportion of our resources focused on resources. I am confident that, despite some of the challenges that we have, we will maintain a focus on ensuring we have an efficient and effective response to the handling of firearms licensing inquiries, as we currently do.

Q105       Douglas Ross: David Page is your deputy chief operating officer for Police Scotland. Is that correct?

ACC Speirs: Yes.

Q106       Douglas Ross: He gave evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee last week, where he spoke about budget cuts. He said, “There’s a real concern we won’t be able to discharge our duties as we currently do.” He went on to say that, at the highest level, that could result in fewer police officers on the street and in schools. A member of the Committee asked if other types of crimes—such as burglary, vandalism and car break-ins—would all be effectively at the back of the queue, and David Page said yes. Are you confident that you can protect this element of Police Scotland when your colleagues are telling another Parliament in the United Kingdom that there are severe cuts to frontline services delivered by the police on the horizon?

ACC Speirs: Absolutely. I am very familiar with the commentary from the Committee last week. I recognise, looking at firearms licensing, that we are talking about the granting or not, or the revocation or renewal of what are lethal weapons. The commitment of Police Scotland is to protect our communities and ensure that the public in those communities are safe. The handling of firearms licence inquiries will not be compromised at any risk to the communities we serve.

Q107       Douglas Ross: If we have fewer officers, how can you say that?

Superintendent Duncan: For me, there is clearly the legislative requirement to keep on top of renewals. I sometimes think it is worthwhile splitting out the difference between new grants and renewals. As we have seen, despite the challenges of covid and some of the restrictions it placed on us—and our ability to progress with the grant side of things—we managed to keep on top of the renewal demand particularly well. You have heard evidence from members of the public and shooting organisations with respect to that. The reality is that when it comes to the granting of new applications, there is no time limit. We are not under any legal pressures or time constraints to authorise that grant or otherwise, so it is entirely in our gift to manage that in whatever timeframe is required to ensure public safety.

Douglas Ross: Thank you very much.

Q108       Mhairi Black: Thank you for giving us your time this afternoon. I will turn to the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner. To what extent do you think they adequately conduct investigations into the police response and firearm incidents?

ACC Speirs: The oversight of PIRC investigations and the route into PIRC sit with me. It is an independent body. In my view, they are bound by legislation—the circumstances and criteria as to when you would investigate a death or a serious injury following police contact. The presentation of a firearm is done incredibly diligently and very thoroughly; they report on those circumstances at a later date. I have a lot of confidence in the approach they take.

Q109       Mhairi Black: How often does that happen? I am not familiar with how often these kinds of investigations take place.

ACC Speirs: The circumstances around when we would refer a matter to PIRC include serious injury following contact, serious injury in police custody, death following police contact, presentation of firearms, and discharge of Taser, so we are referring matters to PIRC multiple times per week.

Q110       Mhairi Black: Do you think that the police forces are able to adequately learn from these investigations? Are the investigations good at pointing out where those problems are and where things can be changed?

ACC Speirs: That is really important for us. Every report that we get back from PIRC will point towards a number of recommendations. We have an absolute commitment to take on board those recommendations and drive some change into the organisation where it is required. It is a really important part. We report through our own governance arrangements to the police authority, and being held to account there for how we progress recommendations is the first place where that would appear.

Q111       Mhairi Black: Are you able to give us any real-life examples of where the investigations have pointed out a weakness and how the police forces have responded to that?

ACC Speirs: I can give you a current one that we are looking at right now—it is sometimes hard to just pull something from the air. Our priority is protecting the most vulnerable in our communities. On occasion, we come across individuals who are simply vulnerable because of their drunken state, perhaps, and our priority is to try and get them to a safe place.

One of the recommendations I have from PIRC just now is to look at how we better risk-assess when we provide transport to take a vulnerable person to a place of greater safety. That happens right across the force. It is that good work that we do on a daily basis that is really unrecognised. We are looking at how best we do that to ensure that when we do provide that sort of safe travel—it largely is through drink—we can try and deposit that person with a member of the family or somebody who can look after them. That would be a recommendation that we are looking to land right across the force and thinking how best we can take that forward. That is one illustration.

Q112       Mhairi Black: Have you found that there is ever a conflict between PIRC and the police force, or any recommendations that they make, which the police might then look at and go, “This isn’t practical,” or, “We don’t have the resources to do that”?

ACC Speirs: Largely not. Our commitment is to try and deliver against those recommendations. With hindsight, in policing, even when we do our own internal reviews of a lot of circumstances, when you look back you always see areas where there are things you could have improved or reflected on and done differently. Generally speaking, I am confident that we can take on some of the learning.

There are sometimes really difficult scenarios that are hard. Unfortunately, we have some individuals who come into custody and self-harm in a cell. We are then looking at what measures we can take in that environment. In my experience, there are very few unrealistic recommendations that would come from PIRC that we would not try and embrace and deliver against.

Mhairi Black: Do you have anything to add, superintendent?

Superintendent Duncan: No, nothing further to add.

Mhairi Black: I just didn’t want to leave you out.

Q113       Chair: ACC Speirs, you said that there were several referrals per week to PIRC. I will not ask you to give a breakdown of what those referrals are about, but I am interested in how many are firearms related. I am thinking that you will tell us it is very rare, but maybe you could give us an idea of how many there are and how regularly you might pass on something to PIRC to do with firearms.

ACC Speirs: They are not irregular. In terms of what is classified as a firearm in Police Scotland, we would refer all use or discharge of PAVA, which is a spray that officers carry. The use of Taser is classified as a firearm, and then there is a response to firearms incidents. On occasions when we present a firearm and point a firearm at a member of the public, that, too, becomes an automatic referral. On the discharge of PAVA, the discharge of a Taser, or where we present and point a firearm, in my experience in that category we probably refer three or four times a week.

Chair: Three or four times a week?

ACC Speirs: Yes.

Chair: That is quite a number. I am relatively surprised at that—I am looking around the Committee. So there are three or four times per week that you would refer an incident related to a firearm, but that might be Tasers or anything to do with firearms.

Wendy Chamberlain: Or a spray.

Q114       Chair: Within those referrals, what would actively be a firearm—a shotgun or licensed weapon, for example?

ACC Speirs: I think we need to differentiate between firearms licensing and incidents where people could have access to—

Chair: An illegal firearm.

ACC Speirs: An illegal firearm or a weapon that we would class as dangerous, such as a knife, machete or sword. That is where the larger number of our referrals would come from. Our armed response vehicles responding to a firearms-related incident, or to a person who might have access to a fairly lethal weapon, would be the routine type of incident that we would then refer to PIRC. If you think about that from a policing perspective, we have ARVs—armed response vehicles—being deployed on a daily basis to incidents.

Chair: That is really helpful. Thank you for that.

Q115       Deidre Brock: Thank you, gentlemen, for coming in. Clearly, Police Scotland has a very good record on processing renewals and licence applications, and there seem to be problems in other forces around the UK. I wonder if you could help us with licence renewals, because there are a range of views on whether it should be longer or shorter than the five years it is currently, or whether it should remain where it is. Could you give us an idea of the impact it would have on you if the renewal period were longer? Equally, if the renewal period were shorter, what sort of impact would it have on police resources?   

Superintendent Duncan: For me, certainly if the renewal period were shortened—I know there was some discussion about whether it should be at the two or three-year mark—the reality is that it would double the demand placed on the firearms licensing system. I certainly understand the arguments to extend the licensing period, because the reality is that a large majority of the renewals pass through the system without any further refusals or revocations, and only about 2% do not progress. But I think it needs to be looked at end to end. If we are confident with the legislation that is in place and perhaps make some refinements to that, and if we are content with the ongoing surveillance, for want of a better phrase, through the likes of GPs, public surveillance and all that type of stuff as well, I think there is a reasonable argument to be made to extend the licensing period.

Q116       Deidre Brock: Could you expand a little on the refinements to legislation that you would like to see? You mentioned GPs. I know we will be talking about that later. 

Superintendent Duncan: As I said, the legislation has developed over the last 50 years, and I suppose that where there has always been a slight disparity is in relation to the statutory test, as it were, for applicants for firearms and shotguns. For a firearm, it has always been a requirement that you have been deemed to be fit to be entrusted, that you have had good reason for the possession of the firearm, and that that possession would be without danger to public safety. Where there is a slight difference with the shotgun requirements is that you still need to have good reason, but the only other additional requirement is that there is no additional risk in terms of public safety, so that “fit to be entrusted” aspect is not within the shotgun requirements.

The other slight anomaly in the legislation is that the onus to demonstrate good reason for a firearm sits with the applicant, whereas, with the shotgun legislation, the onus is on the police to show that there is not good reason. There are similar anomalies when you look at the grounds to revoke a licence as well, insofar as if you lose your good reason to possess a firearm, we are empowered to withdraw your certificate. However, the same cannot be said for shotguns: if you no longer have a good reason, it would need to be on the grounds of public safety, so there is a bit of a gap in the legislation. I suppose that has probably been even more obvious since the Scottish Government passed legislation in relation to air weapons, because the air weapons test is effectively the same test that would be applied to a firearm.

Q117       Chair: Just remind us of what the air weapon requirements are.

Superintendent Duncan: The air weapon requirements would be very similar: fit to be entrusted, good reason to have it, and not a danger to public safety.

Q118       Deidre Brock: So you would like to see those reasons extended to shotgun holders?

Superintendent Duncan: Yes, for the purposes of being consistent and clear for everyone. I struggle to see why there would need to be that difference.

Q119       Deidre Brock: Since we are on that topic, you said that you thought the legislation is broadly adequate, but that it could be improved and enhanced. It was pointed out in some of the briefings that we got that the number of women involved in occupations like gamekeeping, and certainly in competition shooting, has been increasing. The Police Scotland evidence that we have seen says: “current legislation is written with a bias towards assuming certificate holders are male, and any refresh of legislation should look to address this”. What else does that require, other than a change of language? Is that basically it?

Superintendent Duncan: It is just that: it is about the language. I don’t have a breakdown of male and female certificate holders in the country, but we are seeing more females taking part in shooting sports and employments involving the use of firearms and shotguns. It really was just an observation about the language used in the legislation. 

Q120       Deidre Brock: Thank you for that answer. Getting back to licence renewals—this is the last question from me—can you give us an idea of what the balance is between public safety and the extra pressure on police resources that might be brought about by shortening or lengthening the period between renewals? What are your thoughts on that, specifically in relation to public safety—leaving costs to one side?

Superintendent Duncan: Public safety has to be the key. It has to be the No. 1 priority at all times. If there was a reduction to the licensing period, we would clearly need to look at the resourcing model to ensure we were still able to deliver that as the No. 1 priority.

Deidre Brock: Yes, of course. Thank you very much.

Q121       Chair: There are those who have suggested that the period should be extended to 10 years. This Committee heard that from the shooting representatives last week. Do you have any particular views on that? I think their case would be that it would cut down on your administrative costs if you are doing it half as much in a 10-year period. What do you think about that?

Superintendent Duncan: I totally see that argument. As I said earlier, less than 2% of renewals result in the renewal being refused. The inference is that, a lot of the time, 98.5% of renewals go through the process and, by extension, it would be equally safe to extend the licensing period, but the reality is that we are now working at the margins. We accept that we have some good legislation in place now that allows us to address the vast majority of public safety issues. For me, it is about refinement and making small marginal improvements to try to improve the public safety aspect even more.

Q122       Chair: So you wouldn’t be in favour of extending the period to 10 years?

Superintendent Duncan: At this moment in time, I think the status quo seems to be appropriate. As I say, if the legislation can be refined in the ways that we articulated in our written response, and as we become comfortable with the ongoing surveillance measures—GPs and all that type of stuff—there is an opportunity to re-examine extending the licensing period.

Chair: We won’t get into that just now, but I think we might want to come back to some of your refinements. That was a very interesting exchange with Ms Brock, which she might want to explore a bit further, but Sally-Ann Hart has some questions for you.

Q123       Sally-Ann Hart: Good afternoon. Last week, the shooting organisations said that firearms owners might not visit their GP with mental health concerns because they feel their licence might be revoked by the police. That could mean that mental health issues are not addressed effectively. Have you come across that challenge? Have you been able to respond to it, and in what way?

ACC Speirs: Mental health affects every part of policing that we deliver on a day-to-day basis. The challenges that we face in responding to the most vulnerable in the community are a daily occurrence for us. We are acutely aware that circumstances surrounding mental health are often complex and really challenging.

This is a really difficult area when it comes to firearms licensing. Thus far, I am fairly confident that the response and support they get from GPs is really strong. There is a great responsibility placed on shooting organisations and clubs to highlight concerns, but mental health can affect everybody. Some statistics suggest that one in four people in the country will suffer from poor mental health at some point. On that basis, and sitting behind the renewal period, that is one of the reasons why we would agree, right now, that the five-year renewal programme is about right for the organisation, because it allows us to have that closer look at those renewal licences.

Sally-Ann Hart: Superintendent, do you have anything to add?

Superintendent Duncan: For me, the mental health aspect, as the ACC said, certainly features across all policing on a day-to-day basis. Last week, Mr Lamb alluded to the work that has been done as part of the Scottish practitioners group, such as producing a leaflet that goes out to clubs and individuals on the help and support that is available. Historically, there probably would have been a greater concern that any sort of disclosure about mental health would have been an automatic revocation of a licence. We would be almost at pains to say that that is not the case. There is a much more practical assessment of whether someone is still allowed to access their firearms. We may put a condition on them that the firearms are stored or accessed in a different way, but we recognise the fact that people may rely on their firearms for the purposes of employment.

A lot of people derive a huge amount of satisfaction from taking part in the sporting aspect of shooting. There is a huge social aspect, which, again, can help support mental health. It is a balance, absolutely. It is not always easy in terms of the decisions that need to be made, but we would be keen to get out there that the best thing for people in the long run is, clearly, to speak about any mental health issue and work with us on managing the firearms aspect.

Q124       Sally-Ann Hart: Under the current rules, how might licence holders or their family or friends raise concerns about mental health issues that could affect the applicant’s suitability to own firearms? For example, a hotline has been suggested that family and friends could call to raise concerns. Do you think that has advantages or disadvantages?

Superintendent Duncan: I heard Dr North’s evidence last week and I appreciate that he raised the fact that there were perhaps some challenges in passing information like that to the police. I was not clear if that was in a UK context or specific to Police Scotland, and I have since reached out to Dr North to discuss those issues further.

I can see definite merit in trying to encourage reporting. There are probably other opportunities, such as advertising how you make direct contact with the police or perhaps something similar to Crimestoppers in terms of being able to raise anonymous reports. It is something that I will continue to discuss with Dr North and consider further.

Q125       Sally-Ann Hart: Obviously you would have to be careful of malicious intent. That is something you would have to sift through.

Superintendent Duncan: That is something we are used to dealing with on a day-to-day basis when handling intelligence, so I see something of a similar nature perhaps being an option.

Sally-Ann Hart: Thank you. ACC Speirs?

ACC Speirs: I think similarly. The priority is public safety—it is about safety in our communities. Anything we can do to maximise and enhance that would be really helpful. I think there are a range of ways in which we encourage family, friends and clubs to make contact with us, and we look at every case as it stands on a case-by-case basis. We endeavour to ensure that those individuals who are granted a licence are fit and proper and are in a healthy position to hold one. We would do anything that would support that position.

Q126       Sally-Ann Hart: Do you think there is merit in the Canadian system, where spouses or partners can approve licence applications?

ACC Speirs: I think there are some real challenges in terms of those points of reference. We look at referees. Anybody who has submitted an application will choose a favourable referee. For the same reasons as the hotline, you could have fictious reports being made. You could have matters of coercion around domestic violence. For us, one of the key stages is that home visit and early engagement in the licensing process. From a Police Scotland perspective, we are open to any steps that might enhance the licensing process.

Q127       Sally-Ann Hart: If a licence holder changes their referees through the holding of the licence, would that flag up concerns with you?

Superintendent Duncan: There wouldn’t really be a change of referees throughout the five-year period. Referees are clearly examined and consulted at the outset—at the point of the application being made.

Q128       Sally-Ann Hart: So there wouldn’t be a problem if they changed their referees.

Superintendent Duncan: They would be required to change or update their referees only at the point of renewal. However, we are mindful that when a referee change is made, that does prompt questioning about why that might be the case. Even though you might not have put on one of your original referees at the point of renewal, as part of our inquiry process, we may still go back to speak to one of the original referees to see whether there has been some sort of change in the dynamic or relationship, and to try to understand why that may be the case.

Sally-Ann Hart: Thank you. Do you have anything further to add?

ACC Speirs: No.

Sally-Ann Hart: I have no further questions on that. We have questions on the flagging system.

Q129       Chair: You’ve got flagging to do, but I just want to come back to the issue of referees, because we heard a lot on that last week. Two points of view were offered. One was about the referee system where you go touting for your mates to ensure that you are able to secure referees. The spokesperson for BASC said to us that the referee system is next to worthless because of the way it is currently constituted, and it doesn’t really tell us anything about the applicant. What is your view about the referee system? Is it fit for purpose? Is there really any point to it if you are just going to get people who you know will give you a positive reference?

Superintendent Duncan: I will just refer back to the guidance in relation to referees—even that is not necessarily confusing but perhaps a bit inconsistent. For a firearm application you are required to provide two referees, for a shotgun application you are required to provide one, and for an air weapon in Scotland you are also required to provide a verifier.

In terms of what we are duty-bound to follow up, there should be one referee check at the point of grant, and then it is almost open to us to decide whether a referee should be contacted at the point of renewal. Our policy position is quite clear: all referees will be contacted.

Q130       Chair: So you contact all referees.

Superintendent Duncan: All referees. In relation to your specific question, I hear what Mr Lamb was perhaps referencing, as part of the overall process—again, it is just one snapshot. The reality is that I wouldn’t say many referee checks are particularly decisive in terms of taking the application down another route. I did agree with Mrs Chamberlain’s point last week that at least getting the message out to referees allows extra eyes and ears to potentially report issues during the five-year period.

Q131       Chair: Would there not be a case for referees having a certain public standing in the community? I have been approached on a couple of occasions and I have never felt competent or confident about being able to say yes or no in such situations. People would come to me as a Member of Parliament, thinking that I would be a good person to be a referee. I don’t know whether colleagues have been approached. Is there a sense that you should have standing with the community—for example, a doctor or a senior teacher?

Superintendent Duncan: It is not written into the guidance quite as prescriptively as that. There are requirements in terms of residency and a requirement for the referee to be of good character. Again, some of the checks that we do are checks on the referee to ensure that they are of good character to be able to provide a reference.

Q132       Chair: So it’s full of checking, isn’t it? You are checking the applicant, checking the referees and checking why a referee has been decided. This goes back to the resource issues that Mr Ross was raising: have you got the resources to deal with all of this?

ACC Speirs: I think we have got to recognise that what we are doing is granting the authority for someone to own, possess and access a firearm. I don’t think the checks are disproportionate. I think we have a lot of really skilled members of police staff who support our licensing process, so we are looking at a blend of police officers and police staff.

In our submission, we indicated to you that we are looking at how to streamline and enhance our administration process. Some elements are now robotic. They are nothing to do with decision making, but they make some of the admin movement of the application streamlined and much more effective. When we think about our response to firearms licensing, we are thinking about more than just officers who could otherwise be deployed on the street to do other duties. There is a range of people involved in that process.

Q133       Sally-Ann Hart: Does having the medical reports and the GP flagging system work? They do it when someone obtains a license and then on its renewal; does it require updating in between?

Superintendent Duncan: No. At the point of application, we make contact with the GP to ensure the flag is in place. Until the GP hears from us to say that someone has been revoked, or someone has surrendered their weapon, that flag should remain in place indefinitely.

Q134       Sally-Ann Hart: So if a GP had a concern about a patient who held a firearm, they would flag that with the police.

Superintendent Duncan: Yes.

Q135       Sally-Ann Hart: Immediately—not when the license was renewed.

Superintendent Duncan: Yes. That is part of the ongoing checks that take place in the background throughout the five-year period.

Q136       Sally-Ann Hart: We also heard that it is concerning for GPs to write a medical report, because they are not predicting whether someone is going to have mental health issues. Ultimately, who holds accountability—is it the police, the GPs or the firearms license holder themselves? Who is accountable if something goes wrong?

Superintendent Duncan: I think certainly that for everyone you referenced there is a collective responsibility to be honest and open with that information. In terms of making decisions in relation to that information, that sits with us as the licensing authority.

Q137       Sally-Ann Hart: And you are only as good as the information you have to hand.

Superintendent Duncan: Correct, yes.

Sally-Ann Hart: Hindsight is a wonderful thing sometimes.

Superintendent Duncan: Could I add something about the benefit of the national unit that I oversee? All those matters around suitability, or anything we would class as of a contentious nature, are managed with three or four officers of inspector rank or above across the whole of Police Scotland. In terms of building up that experience and keeping the decisions as consistent as possible, we believe that the model we have helps to achieve that.

Q138       Sally-Ann Hart: ACC Speirs, do you have anything to add?

ACC Speirs: No, nothing beyond that.

Q139       Deidre Brock: On GPs and their involvement in this, I noticed that in the last two years the Home Office guidance was revised. It allows applicants to submit medical verification from GPs who are not their own doctors. I wondered if that had caused any problems and if you are broadly content with that? Have any problems arisen from the fact that the GP was not the local community doctor? I would be interested to hear because it has only been two years.

Superintendent Duncan: GPs may elect not to provide reports. However, the number of GPs in Scotland who are in that position is incredibly low. Yes, people can go and get a private medical assessment done, which would be referred to the police. The key question for Members—it was in some of the written submissions as well—is where does that leave the flagging system? We are quite clear that if your GP practice is not willing to put a flag on to your medical records, you are not getting granted a firearms certificate. The individual either needs to make a decision to move to a practice that will or accept the fact that they will not get a firearms certificate in Scotland.

Q140       Douglas Ross: Superintendent Duncan, you said in response to my colleague Sally-Ann Hart that maybe Police Scotland need to do more to tell people how to make direct contact with the police. How do you make direct contact with Police Scotland?

Superintendent Duncan: There are various options. It can be done through an online portal, which comes in through our contact command and control division. There are options around the use of 101. A lot of individuals will have direct contact with their community policing teams. You can raise information or intelligence anonymously through the charity Crimestoppers.

Q141       Douglas Ross: From a constituency MP’s point of view, I have to say how difficult it is to make direct contact with the police. That is one of the complaints I get time and again: with the number of stations that have closed, there is a difficulty in getting through to your local police officer. Quite often people are coming to their MP to make contact. I have a very good local commander, as well as good inspectors and sergeants, and so on, but I do not think that people watching this would listen to what you have just said and think, “Actually, it is very easy for us to make contact with Police Scotland.”

We have heard in the last couple of days about the number of missed and abandoned calls on 101. In evidence last week, David Page said: The 101 service—do we continue with that?” On one hand we have people suggesting to a Committee of this Parliament that there should be a dedicated hotline, while on the other hand I am raising very legitimate concerns that people cannot contact Police Scotland at the moment. They are having great difficulty in contacting local officers and, when they do use the routes you are suggesting, they don’t get through anyway. How would you respond to that?

ACC Speirs: Our commitment, and our absolute priority, is to service the 101 system and the 999 system—

Q142       Douglas Ross: So was David Page wrong to say that last week?

ACC Speirs: David Page outlined a number of challenges that Police Scotland would face depending on the future funding of Police Scotland. The chief constable is absolutely committed to ensuring that our first point of contact with the public, most often, is through our 101 or 999 services. We are absolutely committed to resourcing that service as efficiently and effectively as we possibly can. There is no doubt that, through different circumstances, whether it be weather or events, there are challenges and strains put on that system, but we are absolutely committed to providing that service and looking to enhance the way in which the public can contact us through online portals.

Q143       Douglas Ross: Would you accept that it is a concern at the moment that people are dropping off 101? Maybe someone is trying to get through with information about a firearms licence or a licence holder and they are one of the many hundreds of thousands across Scotland who are phoning 101 and never getting through to the police. That is why we have witnesses coming to us and saying that maybe there should be a different dedicated hotline for this. Would you accept that?

ACC Speirs: The 101 service is there for the public. I am not going to speculate as to whether people are falling off or not when trying to report firearms—

Q144       Douglas Ross: But that’s not speculation: there are lots of people falling off. Do you accept those figures?

ACC Speirs: Figures are published and they are there, absolutely. Would the hotline enhance firearms licence reporting? Police Scotland would be open to that. I think we have already indicated that there is a responsibility on a whole range of different people—from GPs to the licence holder to friends and families to the clubs that they are associated with—to highlight any concerns over that five-year period. We will react to that very quickly.

Q145       Wendy Chamberlain: I should declare that I was a police officer for 12 years for Lothian and Borders police, between 1999 and 2011. As this session has gone on, Superintendent Duncan, I have become pretty confident that we passed at some point during my service.

I want to move on to discussing the cost of firearms licences, if I may. I understand that it is currently £88 for a new firearms licence and a renewal is £62. I have two questions on that. First, can you explain the difference in the cost and what additional things are required in relation to an initial grant? Secondly, when did that cost last increase? Superintendent Duncan, you are probably best placed to answer that.

Superintendent Duncan: Fees are clearly set through legislation—ultimately, by the Home Office. My understanding is that fees have not been changed for a number of years now. I couldn’t tell you the year specifically, but it has been a number of years since they were reviewed.

To be honest, in terms of the grant and renewal, the number of checks are not vastly different. Given the fact that checks had been carried out before, it is probably a bit quicker in terms of being able to verify and cross-check any differences in that information. However, the overall checks themselves are not vastly different.

Q146       Wendy Chamberlain: Okay, that is really useful. Thinking about the costs themselves, you are saying that that amount hasn’t changed for a number of years. Does the income that Police Scotland get from those licences cover the cost of resourcing your unit and the inquiry officers?

ACC Speirs: Absolutely not. It does not come anywhere close to resourcing the commitment to firearms over and above the central function that we have. We have dedicated officers and staff all across Scotland performing this role. We have other officers performing the role on a part-time basis. This goes only a very small way towards supporting some of the costs associated with firearms licensing.

Q147       Wendy Chamberlain: Can you give us an indication of the percentage?

ACC Speirs: Our income generation would not even cover the central team, which is probably 12 to 18 police officers and a number of police staff who perform a really important role.

Q148       Wendy Chamberlain: As well as local inquiry officers in communities who will be doing that. So it won’t cover training then, either, which was my one of my other questions.

ACC Speirs indicated dissent.

Q149       Wendy Chamberlain: The other thing that I wanted to query, Superintendent Duncan, was something that you said in relation to time difference. I am assuming that what you were saying was that in terms of a grant there isn’t—other than, potentially, an internal KPI in respect of times you would respond in—a time in the legislation by which you need to process that grant application.

Superintendent Duncan: No. When it comes to renewals, in order to give ourselves sufficient time to engage with the applicant and to try to do the GP aspects as well as all the admin, we have effectively set ourselves a 16-week timeframe to deliver that. What we have done is just replicate that 16-week KPI, for want of a better phrase, in relation to grants, but there is no statutory or legal requirement in relation to that.

Q150       Wendy Chamberlain: Thank you. Coming back round to cost, then, given your responses to Mr Ross about some of the challenges that Police Scotland are facing in terms of funding, what is Police Scotland’s view? Should applicants be covering the actual cost of applications?

ACC Speirs: There is no doubt going forward that the pressure on Police Scotland around resourcing is significant, and the financial pressure is absolutely significant. It would go some way to supporting the service that we provide in relation to firearms licences, but I would say that my greater priority is about the process of ensuring that we have an efficient and effective service for the applicant or the licence-holder. What is central to this is public safety and community wellbeing. For me, that is far more important than the great debate about whether it is £80 or £90. Our entire focus is on the efficient running of the firearms licensing function.

Q151       Wendy Chamberlain: That is probably why we are in the position we are in: the cost does not cover it, because public safety has to be the priority.

I am very conscious of the rural economy, and the fact that firearms are critical to that. What is Police Scotland’s view on having a difference in cost between those who require firearms for work and those who use them for leisure purposes?

ACC Speirs: It is a matter for the Home Office to consider the costs. I would not want to get drawn on a means test for particular individuals regarding whether they could afford to pay more or not. We outlined earlier that we recognise that the use of and access to firearms for communities in Scotland is vital. For some, it is employment; for some, it is their stimulation and wellbeing. There are different reasons for a range of people who possess firearms licences and I would not want to get drawn on whether we should have different tiered costings associated with that.

Q152       Wendy Chamberlain: Thank you. Moving on to quality of service, one of the things that came through very strongly and positively last week was the performance of Police Scotland in relation to other forces in the UK, but Mr Lamb, who previously held your role, Superintendent Duncan, talked about the process that happened when Police Scotland came together in terms of the inconsistencies across forces. Are there learnings for other police forces in the UK, in terms of Police Scotland’s performance in this area?

Superintendent Duncan: For me, it is the fact that we are able to move spikes in demand across the country. Quite often we do that. We meet on a weekly basis, particularly on a Monday morning, to have a look at what has built up and what the caseload will look like for the week ahead. There are opportunities to move that around different processing centres to ensure that we are meeting the targets that we need to meet. The other big advantage that we had over the past few years was the introduction of robotics and being able to cut away some of the administrative time.

Q153       Wendy Chamberlain: Tell us more about what part of the process they complete. I know it does not involve any decision making, but I would be interested to hear.

Superintendent Duncan: To be clear, robotics is not involved in the decision making at all. Prior to having robotics, staff had to be dedicated constantly to go through all the licensing system, to project 16 weeks ahead, and then to manually pull a lot of the information needed to effectively form an inquiry pack. The robots effectively now do that. You have a computer constantly making that 16-week review every 24 hours. It pulls together the pack. It has the ability to move the inquiry to the division that is ultimately going to see that. In terms of the correspondence that then needs to be sent out to the applicant, it automatically moves that information into effectively a print queue, so that when we start our next working day it is just a question of pressing print.

Q154       Wendy Chamberlain: And as a result of that, we should not have anybody falling between the cracks, because the system is picking that up.

Superintendent Duncan: Yes.

Q155       Wendy Chamberlain: Finally, through the different groups that you have on a UK basis, what do you think are some of the reasons why the other forces are struggling? Is it the size—the fact that we have 43 forces? Do other forces south of the border collaborate on firearms licensing in the way that potentially the eight forces might have done previously?

ACC Speirs: It is really difficult to draw on the different approaches in different forces. Across England and Wales, you have forces of different sizes using different approaches. There are some parts of the country which collaborate. We certainly look continually across the UK at best practice; I hope that some of the forces are looking at the practices in Scotland. We are the only force in the UK that has introduced a robotic element to the process, and that is to make it more efficient and effective and to allow us to distribute our staff time. Our focus is on our systems and ensuring that we are keeping abreast of any developments in best practice across the UK.

Chair: On that positive note, I suppose it is a good thing that you can be pleased with yourself about that you are among the best in UK when it comes to actually processing these licences. We are right on time, which is fantastic and is a testament to the efficiency of Police Scotland once again. We are really grateful to you. Please feel free to stay if you want. We have the Cabinet Secretary coming in to help us in the next part of the inquiry. To get that set up, we will have a brief suspension.

Examination of witnesses

Witnesses: Keith Brown MSP, Paul Allen and Jamie MacQueen.

Q156       Chair: Welcome back to the Scottish Affairs Committee. We are delighted to have with us this afternoon, for the second part of the session, the Cabinet Secretary responsible for this specific area. We will let him introduce himself, outline his responsibilities, perhaps introduce his colleagues, and say anything by way of a short introductory statement.

Keith Brown: Thank you, Convener. My name is Keith Brown and I am Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans in the Scottish Government. I am joined by Paul Allen and Jamie MacQueen, who are also from the Scottish Government. To help save some time and set some context, I am grateful for the opportunity to make a few brief remarks.

First, offences involving firearms are quite rare. Our written evidence noted the latest available data, which covers 2018-19 and 2019-20 and shows offences involving firearms at the lowest level since 1980. I can now add that statistics published last week for 2021-22 show the lowest total number of homicide victims, 53, since comparable records began in 1976, and there was only one single case of homicide by shooting within that total. This maybe suggests that the ability and readiness to use firearms for criminal purposes appears relatively limited.

In so far as that is true, it is a tribute to those who have driven improvements in legislation and enforcement, including Dr Michael North. Mick is a constituent and friend of mine—I represent the Dunblane area of Scotland—and I know that he gave compelling evidence to your Committee last week.

However, we do know that tragic incidents do still occur, as Gordon Matheson told you last week. They are devastating for families and communities, as well as our emergency services. With that in mind, and without commenting on ongoing proceedings, I would like to express my condolences to everyone impacted by what happened on and around Skye in August, and also to those affected by similar incidents wherever and whenever they occur. Such tragedies must drive us, in government and in justice agencies, to keep focused in our efforts to minimise these kinds of crime.

That said, regulation in Scotland seems to have worked quite effectively overall; offences are rare and, as shooting fraternity representatives told you last week, licensing work is generally said to be relatively efficient. I hope that helps the Committee by setting some context for the evidence you are going to hear.

Q157       Chair: It does indeed. Thank you for that helpful and concise contribution.

You are absolutely right, as we have seen in lots of the evidence that we have secured, that if we examine all the different jurisdictions around the world, we have about the most stringent legislation and regulations in place. You are also absolutely right that incidents such as we witnessed on Skye are relatively—if not extremely—rare, and we are all pleased about that. We will pass on your condolences to those impacted by what happened on Skye. But it did happen. There are incidents involving firearms, and we just heard from Police Scotland that there are a number of issues that we have to consider. You said that you think that the regulations in place are adequate, but where could they and the current system be improved? What more can we do to ensure that incidents like the one on Skye do not just become extremely rare, but hardly happen at all?

Keith Brown: It should be said that they do hardly ever happen. I know it is a different context in London, where you have had two gun incidents in the last week, but they are very rare here. However, there are one or two areas that could be looked at. I have covered some of those in the written evidence I have provided to the Committee. One would be the issuing of shotgun licences. It is not immediately obvious to me why we should have different criteria for issuing those licences. The idea of being a fit and proper person is one such potential change.

I should say that the body of law goes back 50-odd years ago or even longer—I think the substantive Act was passed in 1960. Although it has been updated from time to time, my suggestions would be more general in nature, which is to say that we have, will and want to continue to work with UK Government on how to update these laws over time. The nature of the situation has changed. As my written evidence shows, there have been massive reductions in both the numbers of weapons held and incidents involving firearms.

There are one or two other areas in relation to how long a licence is held for, which Mick North raised. We think we could look at those kinds of things. Also, it is quite a complex area, so the general area of gun law would repay some additional work. The Scottish Government are wired in, with the UK Government, to the different committees that look at this issue. We want to continue to do that.

Q158       Chair: Thank you for that. We just had Police Scotland in—I do not know if you managed to catch that session—and they suggested the very same thing about the issuing of shotgun licences. They invited the Committee to consider that, and we will do that in due time. In your introductory remarks you said that like many issues that the Committee looks at, it seems to split across devolved and reserved competences and responsibilities. The 1968 Act is exclusively reserved, and you mentioned that it has been amended on a number of occasions—most significantly after the Dunblane shootings, back in 1996 or 1997. How does that work for you? You are responsible for the administration of Police Scotland—that is within the range of your responsibilities as a Minister. How does that work when the Act is reserved and has its own code of guidance and means of applying across the whole of the UK?

Keith Brown: The role of Scottish Ministers, even within the responsibilities that we pick up in this area, is limited. The police are the ones who have to do the bulk of the work on this issue. You have heard evidence from them. Our role really is to grant or refuse the applications that come in. The bulk of that is done by the police, as has been mentioned.

I suppose the further complicating factor for Scotland is that we have devolved to us the regulation of air rifles. That was to do with particular circumstances in Scotland over a period of time. I mentioned before whether five years is the right term to have a licence granted for, or what period of review or renewal should there be. It would be useful to have as much conformity between the legislation on air rifles as we have for more general gun laws. You are quite right to say that it is a complex mix, but the complexity bears most upon the police in Scotland, who have to deal with both sides of this.

Q159       Chair: We did hear from the police, but they did not really touch on that territory. I am sure that it will come up again in the course of this short exchange. Lastly from me before we move on, there is obviously statutory guidance issued as part of the guidance from the UK Government when it comes to their responsibilities. Is it suitable for the new responsibilities for the police, GPs and others involved in the licensing process?

Keith Brown: This is a complex area. We have been undertaking those kinds of checks for a number of years now in Scotland, going back to 2016, I think—mental health checks following on from legislation that we introduced—and there are questions around that, especially in small and rural communities. I think it works well and that the police are well aware of the system, but of course, mental health can deteriorate over a period of time. I think it is always worth a fresh look at these things. Whether we have a greater prevalence of mental health issues in society generally, or more awareness of them, I think it is something we should look to update.

As I say, we do have that practice in Scotland through the air rifles[i] legislation, where that mental health check has been going on for some time. You will know that there is a coding process that GPs use to say that they understand a patient is a holder of a gun licence of one type or another. However, I am sure this could be looked at in greater depth, and we could finesse it and make it more refined and effective, if possible.

Chair: Thank you for that. I’ll hand over to Mhairi Black.

Q160       Mhairi Black: Thanks, Chair, and thanks, Minister, for joining us. To touch on the five-year period again—the period between licence renewals—is there an argument for it to be made shorter or longer?

Keith Brown: Mine is a lay opinion, to be honest—I am no expert—but if you just take the issue of mental health, then of course, it is possible for anybody’s mental health to deteriorate quite quickly. If that affects somebody who has a gun licence, that is obviously going to be a matter of concern. That being the case, it would be good to have a proper consultation, assessment and evaluation of it done, but my own view is that you would likely want to have shorter timescales.

Q161       Mhairi Black: Excellent. Is there any work planned on that? Is there any consultation planned on looking at this period of time?

Keith Brown: No, those regulations are entirely reserved. We do feed in to the thinking through a number of working groups, but legislation is made by the UK Government.

I should say that in relation to the legislation we have—on air rifles—we think it is important to have consistency with the other legislation, so for that reason we mirror that fiveyear period just now. I think it is important that it is the same time spell. I should also mention that if we are to reduce it, of course, that increases the workload for police and others, but I think it is certainly something worth looking at. However, the legislation is UK legislation.

Q162       Mhairi Black: I am aware that I am leading you up a hypothetical path, so to speak, but is there any consideration as to how great the impacts or the pressure on the police force would be if timescales were to be made shorter?

Keith Brown: I did not hear the evidence session, but I understand the police gave assurances that they can cope with what they have. In Scotland, we have around 31 police officers per 10,000 of the population, compared with 24 police officers for 10,000 of the population south of the border, so we are served with a substantial police force. However, we have not given this detailed consideration, so I suppose that is part of my point: if we are going to look at this, both Governments must look at it in an organised way. That means taking in much more expert advice than mine, and perhaps going through a consultation period as well.

Q163       Mhairi Black: Would you say that we are particularly close to the limit of where there is a healthy balance between the pressure that is put on the police force and public safety? Is that something that you are quite content with, that the balance is working fine, or do you think we might be approaching a cross path, so to speak?

Keith Brown: The pressures on the police force are always there. In Scotland, we have had covid—as has been true across the UK—but we have also had Operation Unicorn and COP26, and the police have coped fantastically well with those pressures. There is always pressure but, in the area that we are talking about, it is not one that I think fundamentally affects the safety of the public. I refer back to the extremely low numbers that we have—one homicide out of 53 was gun-related, and that number of 53 is itself an all-time low, going back to the early 1970s when we started collecting these records. So there are very low numbers, but of course each one is a tragedy. It is incumbent upon us all to see what else we can do to drive that number down even further, if possible.

Q164       Mhairi Black: Excellent. Before I hand back to the Chair, may I ask briefly about the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner? To your knowledge, are you satisfied with how PIRC investigates and do the police accept its recommendations?

Keith Brown: Yes, and we have some general work going on just now where the PIRC is potentially going to evolve slightly because of recommendations made by Dame Elish Angiolini. My impression is that there is a good working relationship between the PIRC and the police. Of course, the PIRC has a responsibility to investigate every discharge of any police weapon. Is it possible, Convenor and Ms Black, to ask officials, when you hear from them, if they have a point to make on this?

Chair: Absolutely. Please, officials, if you feel that you could usefully contribute, put your hand up or otherwise gesture and we will make sure that you get to come in.

Paul Allen: I was a member of Dame Elish Angiolini’s review support team. Although the review made some recommendations for changes, the PIRC is very on the ball in terms of investigating some of the key issues and the police take its recommendations very seriously.

Mhairi Black: Excellent. Thank you. I have no further questions.

Q165       Douglas Ross: Good afternoon, Cabinet Secretary. First, can I ask if you have had any discussions with the First Minister about the replacement junior Minister in your Department?

Keith Brown: You can ask, yes, but I am not going to discuss that kind of issue, as I think you will understand. I was not asked to appear before the Committee today to discuss the workings of the Scottish Government.

Q166       Douglas Ross: No, but that is the Minister for community safety, so I think that is a legitimate question. Has the First Minister asked you for your recommendations? Has she discussed with you any points on the replacement of a crucial member of your team, who is involved in the area that we are looking at?

Keith Brown: As I just said, I do not intend to answer that question.

Chair: Getting on to gun licensing—

Douglas Ross: But that is the Minister who is responsible.

Chair: Yes, but this is an inquiry into the licensing arrangements for shotguns and firearms in Scotland.

Q167       Douglas Ross: Okay. I do not think the question is too out of order, but if Mr Brown is refusing to answer, I will move on. Cabinet Secretary, at the beginning of your remarks you mentioned the number of incidents—crimes—that were committed with the use of a firearm. Is that correct?

Keith Brown: Yes.

Q168       Douglas Ross: You mentioned the figures for 2018-19 and then the figures for 2019-20.

Keith Brown: That is right, yes.

Q169       Douglas Ross: What proportion or percentage of those ended up with a custodial sentence?

Keith Brown: I do not have that information in front of me.

Q170       Douglas Ross: What do you think it would be?

Keith Brown: Just to repeat, we had 53 homicides. Every homicide that was proven is likely to have resulted in a custodial sentence of one kind or another. One of those homicides was related to gun crime. I do not have the details of the outcome of the trial in relation to that.

Q171       Douglas Ross: I certainly would not expect any homicide, even in Scotland right now, not to end up with a custodial sentence. The figures that you suggested show that we have a low level of gun crime in Scotland also show that 38% of criminals who committed a crime where a firearm was involved avoided prison. Do you think that is sending out a particularly strong signal?

Keith Brown: That is a decision for the courts. I respect the decision of the courts. In Scotland, the courts are independent of the Government and I respect that independence.

Q172       Douglas Ross: But can you understand why people would be concerned? One criminal received a community sentence for robbery with a firearm. Are you happy with that?

Keith Brown: Again, you are asking me to comment on the outcome of an independent justice process through the courts. Just to repeat, in Scotland the courts are independent of Government. Obviously, we set the broad parameters of legislation and the Scottish Sentencing Council, which I understand has cross-party support, helps to provide advice on sentencing, so I intend to respect the independence of the Scottish judiciary.

Q173       Douglas Ross: I just thought that, as Justice Secretary, you might want to say whether you think it is suitable that someone committing such a crime, with a firearm, ends up just getting a community sentence. You don’t seem particularly keen to answer questions today.

Can I ask about some of the earlier evidence we received? What is your view of the evidence given to the Criminal Justice Committee last week by Deputy Chief Officer David Page about the significant changes to Police Scotland with the budget cuts you and your Government are putting through—he said, “There’s a real concern that we won’t be able to discharge our duties as we currently do”—and the impact that could have on firearm licensing and the approval of such licences in Scotland?

Keith Brown: In general terms, I am very concerned about the situation whereby our budget has been cut by £1.7 billion from Westminster this year. In addition, because of inflation, we have had to find so far an additional £700 million to help pay, for example, for the police. It is worth mentioning that a constable in Scotland receives £5,000 more per year at start of service than south of the border. Having that level of cut, and that level increase because of inflation, with no ability to change the budget is of course producing budget pressures.

At the same time, it is worth saying that we start from a very strong position. I have already mentioned the prevalence of police within society in Scotland—31 out of every 10,000 compared with 24 out of every 10,000 south of the border. We have record low crime figures since the early 1970s. We have record low homicides. In general terms, the police start from a strong position, but of course the budget cuts we are receiving from Westminster, and the cost of inflation, are producing real pressures.

Q174       Douglas Ross: Can you just confirm to the Committee that the Scottish Government have the highest ever block grant since devolution?

Keith Brown: We have around a £1.7 billion cut from last year. That is not a Scottish Government figure; it is an independent figure. I think you have acknowledged that yourself.

Q175       Douglas Ross: I am just checking, Mr Brown—if I can just get an answer. Is the Scottish Government’s—

Chair: Can we—

Douglas Ross: Sorry, Chair. I am trying to get—

Chair: Order. We are having an inquiry into firearms in Scotland. If it is possible, could we maybe just stick to that? The Cabinet Secretary has agreed to appear in front of the Committee. There are certain questions that it would be really helpful to hear from him about. I am not entirely sure that the overall envelope of the Scottish budget is something we should be considering in these proceedings.

Q176       Douglas Ross: I think it is absolutely crucial, because the Cabinet Secretary is suggesting there are reasons for the budget cut. I just want to get this on the record: is the Scottish Government’s budget the highest since devolution?

Keith Brown: Well the highest doesn’t really cut it, does it, because—

Douglas Ross: I am just asking. Sorry, Mr Brown—I am just asking.

Keith Brown: There is no point asking a question if you are not going to let me answer it. The simple fact is that it is very important whether something is a real-terms increase or a flat increase. We have had a £1.7 billion cut to our budget this year. There is every prospect—it is looking this way—that it could be cut further this year. For the first year that I can remember under the devolved settlement, we are talking about negative consequentials. Westminster is cutting our budget day in, day out. I would like to get on to answering questions about why I was asked to come along—

Chair: Let’s please get on to questions about firearms.

Q177       Douglas Ross: That was my question right at the beginning. Given the budget cuts that have been discussed by David Page, the Deputy Chief Officer of Police Scotland, and the impact that he believes they will have for Police Scotland, can you protect the officers and the budgets that will be looking at firearm licences? He says that there is a real concern that Police Scotland will not be able to discharge their duties as they currently do. Is this an area in which we have to expect reductions and cutbacks, or are you giving a commitment that that aspect of Police Scotland’s duties will be protected?

Keith Brown: As I understand it, you have just had that commitment from the police in your earlier evidence session. They believe they can cope with this regardless of what is proposed. We have no budget yet, of course; we are not in the budget process yet. As ever, we don’t know what is happening from Westminster. I think you had some assurances from the police, but if I can provide some further reassurance, if you start from a position of having far more police officers and lower crime rates in Scotland, that of course helps. We have a very strong position whereby we can deal with some of these challenges.

Douglas Ross: Thank you very much, Cabinet Secretary.

Q178       Wendy Chamberlain: Thank you, Cabinet Secretary and the other witnesses, for your time today. We heard in a previous session that new firearms licences in Scotland currently cost £88 and renewals £62. That is centrally determined and has not changed for a number of years. I may have misheard you, Cabinet Secretary, but in your response to Ms Black you said that this area was potentially not that related to public safety. I think one of the challenges is the difference between the cost to the police and the actual cost of applications exists because we need to ensure firearms licensing for public safety reasons. I would be keen to hear your thoughts on whether applicants should be covering the cost of their licences.

Keith Brown: I suppose there are two different things at play, one being those who choose do this because it is a recreational interest that they have, and perhaps those who are obliged to do this because it is vital to their job, especially in rural communities. You would not want to unduly burden someone who was trying to do something that was essential for their job. However, in local authorities there is often the presumption, whether it is with a planning or licensing application, that you try to wash your face in terms of the costs associated with processing that application.

I think it is something that should be looked at. We currently feed into the fees working group—I forget its exact title, but the Scottish Government are involved in that just now—and I think it is something that could be usefully looked at. Of course, it may help to provide further income for the police force, but I would want to make sure that we were not unduly penalising those who rely on these licences for their work.

Q179       Wendy Chamberlain: So, in the first instance, you would support an increase in fees generally, given that they have not been uprated for some time. Is that correct?

Keith Brown: Well, I am happy to have it looked at. As I say, we are not the rule makers in relation to this, but we do participate. Of course, as we have just heard in the previous discussion, inflation is running very high just now. With that there is the related issue, of course, that pay increases will have some bearing. I think it is a good time to look at that, yes.

Q180       Wendy Chamberlain: Yes, it certainly did not sound from the previous session that the police service were able to wash their face. But what I also heard there, Cabinet Secretary—perhaps you will clarify this—is that you would potentially support a two-tier system where there were different costs whether someone required a firearms licence for carrying out employment or was seeking a licence for leisure purposes. Is that correct?

Keith Brown: I think we would have to see and to contribute towards the detail of that, but in principle yes.

Wendy Chamberlain: One of the challenges potentially is that both sets of firearms licences have an impact on the rural economy, because if people are using their firearms for leisure purposes that obviously supports the rural economy as well. Thanks very much, Cabinet Secretary.

Q181       Sally-Ann Hart: Good afternoon, Mr Brown and colleagues. I just want to look at the GP flagging system. Given that flagging the medical notes of firearms licence holders is not obligatory for GPs, is the system successful, Mr Brown?

Keith Brown: I will maybe ask one of my colleagues to come in. It is also true to say that the participation of GPs generally is not mandatory, but of course it is possible in most cases to ensure that it happens, because people can use another GP, especially when it is a medical practice.

The markers have been a useful addition to the range of risk assessment tools that are there. They allow medical professionals to flag concerns if they become aware of changes in circumstances. Obviously, a GP looking at somebody’s medical records can see, perhaps, that there has been a deterioration in mental health but they are also flagged as a gun owner.

We are aware that there can sometimes be some technical challenges to using the marker, for example when a patient moves between practices, and we are continuing to work with the police and with doctors.

I do not know whether either of my colleagues, Paul or Jamie, wants to add anything to that from their experience.

Paul Allen: The feedback that we have is generally through Police Scotland, as we don’t really have much frontline experience, but Police Scotland’s remarks to us are that they find this a very helpful system. They introduced it in Scotland in 2016 and have worked very hard at it, so I think they find it valuable, and I think the fact that the UK Government expanded on that across the whole of GB in the statutory guidance that they issued last November shows that there is some merit to it.

Q182       Sally-Ann Hart: Mr MacQueen, do you have anything to add from your point of view?

Jamie MacQueen: No, nothing further.

Q183       Sally-Ann Hart: Mr Brown, you indicated that it looks like some improvements to the system have been made. I do not know if that is what you said or if I misunderstood. Could there be improvements to the system?

Keith Brown: We are very open to the idea that it could be improved. We had a system before—going from 2015 or 2016—and now that the UK Government have put it on a statutory footing, it is an obligatory system. The benefit in Scotland is that police officers have already been doing this for a period, and we have built up a body of expertise among GPs who have been doing it for some time as well.

I said in my previous response that there can be issues when somebody moves from one practice to another. We could look at that area to see where we can improve things further.

Q184       Sally-Ann Hart: In your discussions, has Police Scotland ever suggested an alternative to the GP flagging system?

Keith Brown: Not to me during the just over a year that I have been in post. I am aware of how much it was Police Scotland’s initiative in the first place, of course. Maybe officials who go back further than me might be able to tell you whether that has been raised in the past.

Paul Allen: I am afraid I joined at about the same time as the Cabinet Secretary, so my memory does not stretch much further back. I heard a bit of what Mr Duncan said in the earlier panel, and I think he said that Police Scotland will not give a licence to anyone who does not have a GP marker. That indicates that Police Scotland value that very highly.

Sally-Ann Hart: Mr MacQueen?

Jamie MacQueen: Again, nothing further from me.

Q185       Sally-Ann Hart: Okay. On what GPs are saying, last week we heard suggestions of a hotline that might be put in place, for example. What would be the advantages or disadvantages of having a hotline for partners or members of the public to phone if they have concerns about a firearm holder’s mental health?

Keith Brown: As I understand it, the hotline suggestion, which I think was made by Mick North, is really for a hotline to the police. Mick has done some fantastic work on that—I have worked with him in the past—but I am not sure how a hotline would add to the ways in which people can already get in touch with the police, which is a straightforward thing to do.

We should always keep an open mind on these things, but I would like to be convinced of the value that a hotline would add. To make one effective, you would have to advertise it strongly to ensure that people are aware of it and that it gets into people’s consciousness—it would affect a very small number of people, I would imagine. There may be a case for just generally ensuring that people are aware that they can contact the police if they have to, rather than creating a specific hotline.

Q186       Sally-Ann Hart: On firearms licensing and mental health, there has a been a lot of leafleting work and so on. Do you think creating a hotline would be disproportionate given that members of the general public can go online and report things to the police anonymously? Is that essentially what you are saying?

Keith Brown: There is any number of ways to get in touch with the police: on the ground, if local community police officers are around, but also online, as you say. Above that, people know the contact number for the police in Scotland—not 999, but the general contact number.

Sally-Ann Hart: 101, or whatever it is.

Keith Brown: Yes. These numbers are well known, and I am not sure that a hotline would add a great deal, to be honest.

Sally-Ann Hart: Mr Allen and Mr MacQueen, do you have anything to add?

Paul Allen: Nothing specifically on the hotline—the Cabinet Secretary has covered that—but I would just add that in addition to the direct measures for contacting the police, another part of my remit is to work with and fund Crimestoppers. That will be another way of getting information to the police.

Q187       Sally-Ann Hart: Thank you. It was highlighted to us last week that in the Canadian system, it is mandatory for current or former partners and spouses to approve firearms licence applications. Do you think that could be done in Scotland? What are the pros and cons?

Keith Brown: I think it is generally a good idea to look at what other jurisdictions do because you can frequently learn from them. I do think issues arise from that particular example—although, again, I point out that I am neither the expert nor the lawmaker on this. A partner who has been subject to domestic abuse, for example, could be intimidated into providing a good reference, to allow somebody to get a licence—such a system does not cover that. Nor does it necessarily cover the fluid nature of relationships, which break up.

I am not sure, but I think it is worth looking at to see what else could be done. What you are trying to do is pick up a better picture of somebody who is applying for a licence. Within that, there is quite a lot of possibility: whether it is always a named, designated or trusted individual in the community, or whether it is somebody with greater personal knowledge of the individual. I think it does bear further examination but I am not yet sure that the Canadian system would work as well as the system that we have currently.

Q188       Chair: As well as medical reports, two referees are required to secure a shotgun or firearms licence. We heard reference to that, and it is one of the issues that we have repeatedly come back to in this short inquiry. On that process, we have heard—and perhaps you can give your view on this—that people looking for referees go around trying to find people who will give them positive references in order to secure their firearms licence. Of course they would. We also hear that, because of that, the referee system is so devalued that it is no longer fit for purpose. Do you have any views about the necessity of referees? Should we continue with the system, or should the Committee look at it further?

Keith Brown: To repeat a couple of things, first, we have very low levels of both gun ownership and gun crime in Scotland, so this is a smaller and smaller number of people. But to squeeze out the last remaining instances of these things, you should always look to improve it. The issue of, if you like, shopping for referees is an important one. Bearing in mind the recent discussion in Westminster about people having a statutory duty to report child abuse, one way you could go is a statutory duty to report if somebody asked you for a reference that you didn’t want to give. I am not sure, but I am sure these things can be examined.

I think the discussion that the Committee is having is interesting, because we are at a stage where we are seeing, certainly in Scotland, lower and lower levels of gun crime. The question has to be: how do you push that even further? It may be that there is a different equation in England and Wales because of different levels of gun crime—I am not sure. But it is a very healthy discussion to see how you can push it down that bit further. Referees, and trying to ensure that we can put together the most truthful picture of the person who is applying for a licence, are a very good area of discussion. For our part, I am more than happy to discuss it with the UK Government, who of course have the powers in this area.

Chair: That is certainly something we will seriously consider in parts of our recommendations and conclusions.

Q189       Deidre Brock: Good afternoon, Cabinet Secretary and gentlemen; thank you for coming today. Further to what we were just discussing, in its 2010 report “Firearms Control”, the Home Affairs Committee recommended that “there should be both tighter restrictions and clearer guidance on the granting of firearms and shotgun licences to individuals who have engaged in criminal activity. Dr Michael North stated that he thought that while there were some circumstances in which it is appropriate for individuals with criminal records to own firearms, there should be a significant period of time between an individual completing a sentence and being granted a firearms licence. I would be grateful for your thoughts on whether there should be tighter restrictions on the granting of firearms to those who have indulged in criminal activity.

Keith Brown: A lot depends on the nature of that criminal activity. I think you want to ensure that somebody who is involved in criminal activity involving guns does not get licenced use of a gun ever again. That would be my view. Certainly for serious crimes, I think that the same kind of criteria would be sensible. Beyond that, we do want to try to rehabilitate people. It is always possible that somebody can be rehabilitated and perhaps even find a new career where, for example, they are working in a rural environment with guns.

Despite that need to rehabilitate, the fact is that the damage that guns can do is very substantial—of course it is. For that reason, you perhaps want to make sure the balance is more towards making sure that somebody would miss out, by not being a licence holder, on recreational activity that they were involved in. It is easier in that case to say, “No, you can’t have that as a consequence of your previous behaviour”; that is perhaps more difficult to say if somebody has a valid job opportunity that might require them to have a licence. I think this is worth examining again. Mick North takes a very balanced view in these things, and we certainly want to listen to people like Mick before putting our view in. And that is all we can do—put a view in to the UK Government in relation to this.

Deidre Brock: Indeed, so this might form part of the review that you mentioned that you would be willing to discuss with the UK Government in the future. Are you nodding, Mr Allen? Is there anything that you want to add to that? No—you are shaking your head.

For example, people can own firearms five years after finishing sentences that lasted up to three years—obviously, you know that—so a question might be raised about whether a different length of waiting time might be brought in if a longer sentence has been served. I think we will leave that there for the moment. Thank you very much.

Q190       Chair: I do not know whether you had the opportunity to listen to Gordon Matheson, the Free Church pastor in Sleat on the Isle of Skye, last week. He gave the Committee very compelling and powerful evidence. He was able to paint a picture for us of the impact—the trauma—that an incident such as this brings to small communities and, in particular, small rural communities like we see in Sleat. Is there anything further that you can think of that the Scottish Government could do to assist communities when they experience tragedies such as this? Is there anything that you have thought of in relation to this that you could do possibly a bit more, just to make sure that communities are supported when tragedy hits?

Keith Brown: We should obviously examine what more we can do, but the typical response would include, especially in the immediate aftermath, a higher police presence—that is standard practice—to provide reassurance. I think the situation is slightly different in a community like Skye, which is a community where people by and large know each other and where the professionals and agencies in the area—the personnel that occupy the positions in those agencies—are well known to the public.

I think you heard evidence from Mick North about the long-lasting trauma that an incident such as this can cause for the wider community. We have more to do. We have produced a justice vision for Scotland, and the lynchpin of that is that it is trauma informed or trauma responsive, and person centred. I think that kind of approach, perhaps different from other things, where it tends to be a small number of people directly involved in the process, is the focus of our attention to try to help people through. It is different in a firearms incident, which is such an extraordinary thing. I think we have to make sure that our response in the different agencies, whether it is the health service, the police or others—perhaps even the education service—takes into account the whole, wider community impact. I did see some of the evidence that the pastor gave, including saying that his own daughter was now afraid to sleep in one of the bedrooms.

I think there is more that we can do. These incidents are very rare, but we should take the learnings from them, when they do come along, to improve our response in each case.

Q191       Douglas Ross: Cabinet Secretary, I realise this is outwith your remit, but one of the areas I found very troubling, in relation to the point you have just made about Gordon Matheson’s daughter and that evidence, was that the charity air ambulance, to get from its base to Skye and then back to hospital in the central belt, had to stop for fuel. Is there something the Scottish Government would look at, in that these national resources—albeit the helicopter used in this case was a charity one—cannot actually service the whole of Scotland, particularly the whole of mainland Scotland, in the way I think most people would have expected? I think many people were quite surprised that, in an emergency such as this, even the emergency response had to refuel and suchlike because the appliances are not of a suitable size to do it all in one journey. Is that something that concerns you, both from the policing side and from the wider Scottish Government side?

Keith Brown: Well, that is not the policing response; you are right to say it is, obviously, the health response. You are also right to say it is not my area, so I cannot comment on that; you could quite easily say the wrong thing in relation to that. I am happy to take the point back and have it looked at further. It is also true, as you well know from your own constituency, that we are talking about some pretty substantial distances, with low populations in each of them, which provides some of these challenges. But I am happy to take that back and pass it on.

Douglas Ross: Thank you.

Chair: We thank you, Cabinet Secretary, and your colleagues for helping us out today with this very short inquiry. I think we have concluded our oral evidence sessions, and we will now be looking to provide some sort of short report. We will be very interested in your view on that when it is eventually published, but, for this afternoon, thank you all ever so much for helping us out today.


[i] Clarification received from the Scottish Government 17/11/22: The Cabinet Secretary meant to say “for the firearms legislation.”