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Scottish Affairs Committee 

Oral evidence: Firearms licensing regulations in Scotland, HC 710

Monday 21 November 2022

Ordered by the House of Commons to be published on 21 November 2022.

Watch the meeting 

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

Questions 192 - 234


I: Rt Hon. Chris Philp MP, Minister of State (Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire), Home Office; and Nick Hunt, Head of Firearms Policy Unit, Home Office.

Examination of witnesses

Witnesses: Rt Hon. Chris Philp MP and Nick Hunt.

Q192       Chair: Welcome to the Scottish Affairs Committee. We are delighted to have the Minister along this afternoon to help us in our last session on firearms regulations in Scotland. I know that you are new to your position and the Committee congratulates you on your appointment. If you want to introduce your colleague and say anything by way of a short introductory statement, that would be more than satisfactory.

Chris Philp: Thank you, Chair. Thank you for the invitation today and for the opportunity to answer questions from the Committee. I thank you also for conducting your inquiry into this very important topic. Hopefully there will be some recommendations coming out of the Committee’s proceedings that will help to inform the formation of policy going forward. As you said in your introduction, I am relatively new to this role. I have been in post maybe four weeks now, so I am particularly keen to hear ideas from parliamentary Committees such as this one. We are very aware of the tragic incidents in Skye and Dornie on 10 August, and I am sure that the whole Committee, and certainly the Home Office, want to send their condolences to the victims and their families.

Before asking my colleague to introduce himself to the Committee, it is worth saying that, thankfully, we have very strong firearms controls in Great Britain. They are among the strongest in the world although, of course, if the Committee can suggest ways that we can improve them, we are very keen to hear about them. Firearms homicides are, thankfully, relatively rare. They make up about 5% of all homicides across Great Britain as a whole and they seem to be on a downward trend but I think that is a result of having tight restrictions. If we can improve restrictions further, we are keen to take the opportunity to do that. For Scotland in particular, in 2019-20, there were 341 firearms offencesabout a 2% decline from 2017-18. There were three cases of homicide by shooting in Scotland recorded in 2020-21 and one in 2021-22, but every single homicide by way of shooting or using a firearm is one too many and we want to do whatever we can to reduce that.

That concludes my introductory comments. Nick, if you would introduce yourself, that would be very helpful.

Nick Hunt: My name is Nick Hunt. I am from the Home Office where I am Head of the Firearms Policy Unit, with a range of policy areas including firearms licensing.

Q193       Chair: Thank you for that concise introduction and thank you once again for coming along. I am sure that your condolences to the communities will be noted by the many people who are watching these proceedings, so thank you for that.

You are absolutely right, Minister, that we have among the most stringent and robust firearms regulations in the world, and you are right to assess and conclude that incidents such as we witnessed in August are very rare, fortunately, but it still happened. We had an incident where a licensed firearms owner did this in a small community in the islands of Scotland. Where do you see that improvements could be made in the guidance and the current legislation? What is your assessment of where we are now? If you look at this in the round, is there anything that is obvious to you that could be done to improve the current situation?

Chris Philp: When a new licence is issued, fairly important checks are carried out in each and every case as a matter of routine, and as a matter of mandate, including a criminal record check. I think that those who have received a custodial sentence of over three years or those who have received a sentence of between three months and three years in the five years prior to the application do not get a licence. Any criminal record can be taken into account, however old it may be, by the police in making their decisions.

Secondly, there is the requirement to have references taken from referees of good character who have known the applicant for at least two years. One referee is required for a shotgun certificate and two referees for a firearms application. Finally, there are checks to ensure that there are no medical conditionsI guess particularly mental health-related issuesthat might make the applicant unsuitable. Taken in the round, those are quite stringent checks and the police obviously have discretion to perform further checks and enquiries should they consider them to be necessary.

You asked whether I have any views on how this could be further improved. As I said, I am very new to this portfolio and I want to study the recommendations of this Committee to inform views. But I am conscious that in some other areas, for example passport applications, the referee has to be not just anyone of good character but someone who occupies a particular position, for example a lawyer, a JP, a local councillor or even a Member of Parliamentsomething like that. Reading the guidance cold for the first time, that particular difference from some other forms of referee struck me, but we need to make sure that we do not impose onerous burdens on people wanting to apply. That is just an observationI put it no stronger than thatand I will be interested in the recommendations the Committee may have in this area.

Q194       Chair: I know that members of the Committee will have specific questions on some of the issues you raise about the process and the guidance in place now. We are not the first Committee to look at this. The Home Affairs Committee has looked at this on a couple of occasions, most recently in 2021. At that point the UK Government, as part of their response to the Home Affairs Committee, said that they were committed to keeping firearms legislation under review in response to the last inquiry. What does that mean? What are you actually doing and is there anything you can say about the type of review that you are keeping on this? That may be more for Mr Hunt, but are you aware of what is happening with that commitment?

Chris Philp: In common with many kinds of guidance, we are continually listening to what people, particularly in Parliament but also more widely, are saying about this, and we are responding to it in an ad hoc and ongoing way. I know that some specific work is going on to review fees. They were last reviewed in 2015, which is seven years ago, and since then costs have gone up. Some police forces have pointed out that the current fee levels that were set in 2015 do not fully cover their cost and in a time of funding challenges across the whole country, we want to make sure that the police are recovering their costs. That is a piece of work that is actively happening at the moment.

Q195       Chair: It will be of interest to know when you are addressing some of the fees-related issues. Mr Hunt, can you help us if there is anything—

Nick Hunt: As the Minister set out, we are doing a wide-ranging set of work, including looking at fees again, but more broadly we have been looking since 2021 at issues like the statutory guidance, which is new, specific guidance to chief officers of police to try to drive great consistency across the police forces in the way that they enforce the licensing restrictions and so on. It is a very important piece of work. As part of that, we have been working very closely with a range of Departments, the British Medical Association, the Scottish Government and others about medical arrangements. We are also working very closely with the National Police Chiefs’ Council and Police Scotland as part of the work we are doing on issues with training and authorised professional practice to reinforce the work that the police forces do in this space.

Q196       Chair: We are looking at this because it is a reserved issue, but lots of this is devolved, as you know. There are areas that are specifically the responsibility of the Scottish Government and Scottish Ministers, but we are still referring back to the 1968 legislation, which was amended notably after the Dunblane tragedy. Have you detected any conflict in the crossing of responsibilities where the legislation seems to be clearly Westminster, but a lot of the operational issues are devolved to the Scottish Government? In your brief tenure in the office, have you assessed that this seems to be working well and that there is no need to look at further arrangements?

Chris Philp: On that particular question, I have not come across or identified any particular problem caused by the fact that the legislation is reserved, but the operational matters are devolved. Policing across the whole United Kingdom, all four corners, is operationally independent, so in a sense the issue you are referring to applies as much in England and Wales as it does in Scotland. The Metropolitan Police in London are operationally independent and so forth. Firearms clearly can travel, we have no internal borders, and firearms that are in circulation in one place can easily be transported to another place. I think it makes sense to have a single firearms licensing regime because if one particular part of the United Kingdom had a different regimeif one part was looser than the other, whichever way round it might besomebody might inappropriately get a gun in one place and it could be transported to another.

We have no internal borders and no internal friction, which lends itself to a single regime. In the short time I have been in this position, I have not come across any problems that has thrown up for Scotland or Wales but equally for any other police force because they are operationally independent anyway.

Chair: We will come on to police forces and their responsibility and role in all this in the course of this session, but now I will hand over to Deidre Brock.

Q197       Deidre Brock: Good afternoon, Minister and Mr Hunt. Thank you for appearing in front of us. Forgive me, but I will have to be away fairly shortly once you have answered my question because I am needed in the Chamber.

One of our police witnesses mentioned some disparities in UK legislation in the requirements for firearms possession and requirements for shotgun possession. You are nodding, Mr Hunt, so you are clearly familiar with that. First, firearms have a fit-to-be-entrusted aspect and shotgun possession does not, and the onus to demonstrate good reason for a firearm rests with the applicant whereas with shotguns the onus rests with the police to show there is not good reason. I am shorthanding there. What consideration are the UK Government making for bringing those different forms of licensing into line with each other?

Chris Philp: Thanks for the question. This relates to sections 27 and 28 of the 1968 Firearms Act. As you pointed out, Deidre, there are different texts for each of them. For firearms under section 27 it is for the applicant to demonstrate they are “fit to be entrusted” with a firearm, that they have good reason to possess one, and that they do not pose a danger to public safety or to the peace. It is for them to demonstrate that. By contrast, for shotguns under section 28, it simply requires the police to be satisfied that the applicant does not pose a danger to public safety and there is no good reason to prevent them from possessing a shotgun. They are different tests and the test is looser for shotguns, as you have pointed out.

I think that the reason is that there are many people particularly in rural communities, and including across Scotland as much as anywhere else, where the possession and use of shotguns are part of rural life on farms and so on. It is not something I come across because I represent Croydon in Parliament, but I think that my rural colleagues would probably say that many of their constituents have a shotgun as a necessity of their lives. That is why the test is set differently. Shotguns are quite large weapons and harder to conceal than some other forms of firearms, although rifles are pretty big as well. I think that is the reason that it has been set differently.

I have not seen any evidence that that is causing a problem, but if this Committee has seen evidence to the contrary or has an opinion to the contrary, we would be very interested to hear it. Nick, do you want to add to that?

Nick Hunt: The primary test for both shotguns and firearms is: is that person going to be a danger to public safety or to the peace? It is a common test applied to both shotguns and firearms. When you go on to the next testthe good reasonthere is a reverse burden for shotguns compared to firearms. That is based in the origins of legislation where shotguns were thought to be an essential tool to be used by farmers and crofters, and that is why it was framed in the way it was compared with firearms, where you were thought to have a good reason for maybe your shooting club. You would check with your shooting club that you have that reason. That is why the legislation is slightly different for both, but it is still the same basic test, which is the threat to public safety or to the peace.

Q198       Deidre Brock: I am pretty sure it was a police inspector who raised this as an issue that he had with the legislation. Do think those reasons still hold water all these years later?

Nick Hunt: One of the things that we are trying to do through the statutory guidance is make it much clearer to the police about how they apply the legislation. In the statutory guidance we deal specifically with the point about the difference between shotguns and firearms and the test we have applied by them. For example, fitness to hold a firearm is slightly different in that it is not applied to shotguns in the legislation, but the guidance insists that that part of the overall administration is applied to both weapons so that the police still look at it as part of the overall test about whether you are a threat to public safety or to the peace.

Q199       Deidre Brock: You think that clarification will help. Can I ask about the way you work with the Scottish Government on that extra guidance? Is there a procedure for that?

Nick Hunt: We work very closely with the Scottish Government. They attend our meetings and Police Scotland does as well. We are very aware that we need to take account of Scotland in all the guidance we produce and make sure that the legislation is fit for purpose as well. We work very closely with Police Scotland and the Scottish Government on all these policies.

Q200       Deidre Brock: Are they feeding into the guidance?

Nick Hunt: They are feeding into the guidance and we have regular meetings with them.

Deidre Brock: Thanks very much.

Q201       Mhairi Black: Thank you, Minister, for giving us your time. I will turn to the referee process in particular. We have heard from multiple witnesses that there are concerns about whether people are getting genuine referees or whether they are canvassing people until they find someone willing to give them a favourable recommendation. How should the police respond to that or investigate that? Do you have any thoughts on the matter?

Chris Philp: It is a very good question and I touched on this earlier in response to a question from the Chair. It is worth saying, first of all, that before granting a certificate to a first-time applicant at least one of the applicant’s referees should be contacted by the police and interviewed, including potentially on a home visit but otherwise over the phone. There is some level of actual contact and it is not just taken on paper. The first time an application comes in there is an interview with at least one of those referees. That does not need to happen when the licence is renewed and it is at the discretion of the police as to whether or not they reinterview a referee. I think the fact that the police are interviewing at least one of them at the first time of application gives some assistance because if the police are concerned that the referee is not bona fide, they could try to pick that up in their discussions.

But as I said to the Chair earlier, one of the things that struck me just reading this cold for this first time is that this process is a little different to some others where you have referees and the referee has to be a person of particular standing, for example a member of a particular profession like a lawyer, an accountant, a magistrate, a local councillor, a Member of Parliament or something like that. That was a thought that struck me. I have a completely open mind on the question, but it was a thought that occurred to me and the Committee may have views on that.

Q202       Mhairi Black: Another example that we have heard about the referee process is: say someone makes a successful application and it comes to renewal; is it considered a red flag if the referees are different than they were the previous time? We have heard that in evidence. Have you had any thoughts on that kind of scenario or is that still to be considered?

Chris Philp: That has not crossed my radar. Nick, do you want to comment?

Nick Hunt: I am aware of the point you are making. It has not been a significant issue, but we are aware that the police pick this up and it depends on the police force whether or not they make checks at that point. I think if they saw a change in referee they would be more inclined to interview that referee to understand why that is the case. The legislation requires the referee to have known the person for two years and we are looking in the statutory guidance to see whether that could be tighter, so we can look at this issue as well.

Q203       Mhairi Black: Do you feel satisfied that it is consistent across the board with police forces addressing that or picking up these kind of issues?

Nick Hunt: We work very closely with the National Police Chiefs’ Council and I think that is one of the points where they are working to develop consistency across the board. It is generally good practice that the police force look into that referee if it is a new referee on renewal, but there is not a force of legislation behind it. It is very much police practice and what they decide to do or not.

Q204       Mhairi Black: On licence renewals in particular, we have heard arguments from both sides about whether the renewal period should be shorter or longer and what the different consequences would be. Have you had any consideration of what you think the effects might be if it was shorter or longer?

Chris Philp: It is five years at the moment and the arguments in both directions are fairly obvious. If the length of time were reduced it would catch change in circumstances faster but equally it would impose a higher burden on the police operationally and additional administration on the person who holds the firearms certificate. Conversely, if it was lengthened, for example to 10 years, it would reduce the bureaucratic burden on the police and the firearms holder, it would reduce cost, but it would increase the chance that there was some change in circumstance that did not get caught. The more time that goes on, the more chance that some adverse change, for example in somebody’s mental health, might occur. The longer the time goes on, that is more likely.

The question is: how do you balance off those two competing considerations? The balance is currently struck at five years and we are very happy to look at evidence arguing both ways. If the Committee has had evidence arguing both ways, I would be very interested to see that in your report and see what the Committee suggests. There are some forcesseven or eight across the countrywhere there are delays with the issuing of these licences and shortening it from five to three years would make those delays potentially worse, but equally we need to be mindful of people’s changing circumstances. It is a balance and I don’t think there is a hard and fast right or wrong answer really.

Q205       Mhairi Black: Would you say that you are swaying in either direction or are you completely bang in the middle?

Chris Philp: I would not like to say that I am swaying. I have a genuinely open mind and I am always happy to look at evidence pointing in both directions.

Q206       Mhairi Black: If the Committee was to recommend that it should be shortened to two or three years, for instance, do you think it is feasible that the police would be able to cope with that pressure or would it require increased funding? If so, what is the likelihood of that?

Chris Philp: Ideally, on the funding question, the funding of this service, checking out firearms applications, should ultimately fall on the applicant. That is not the case at the moment with the way that fees are set. The fees do not recover the full cost of running the service. Effectively the police, or the taxpayer more widely, are subsiding the provision of these licences. Without changing the fees, if you made it more frequent—say two or three years as you suggested—there would a financial pressure on forces.

I think that the first step is to get the fees into a better place where forces are recovering the cost of running this service. It is not really fair that the taxpayer generally or police forces subsidise a relatively small group of people. That is the first point. That would deal with the cost issue.

Secondly, it is then a question of what is reasonable for the number of officers available. Even if the cost is covered, you have a fixed number of officers and if you make it more frequent, you need more officers to do the checks because you take people off the beat or from chasing up regular crime. One would have to think carefully about whether you want to do that and whether that is the right priority.

Thirdly, you have to consider from the point of the person holding the shotgun licence or the firearms licence whether every two or three years is unreasonably rapid. Those are the sort of things that you would need to think about quite carefully.

Q207       Mhairi Black: This might sound like a trick question, but I promise it is not. Are you comfortable with the balance that the Home Office has taken between public safety and police resources? Have you seen anything to suggest that it could be improved at all?

Chris Philp: Do you mean in general or in this context?

Mhairi Black: Yes, just in general.

Chris Philp: No, I have been very impressed by the civil service ethos and approach in the Home Office. I think that the civil servants—I am sure it is the same in the Scottish Government—are working hard to do their best for the public and generally want to make sure that our fellow citizens are kept safe. I think that is the primary objective of the civil service, but also the police, and police and crime commissioners, around the country. I have been very impressed and I am happy with everything I have seen so far.

Mhairi Black: Excellent. Thank you, Minister.

Q208       Chair: I have a couple of questions on custodial sentences. I think that there was a bit of surprise that people who have served custodial sentences may apply for a firearms licence and be able to secure one. It all seems to be quite arbitrary because you can apply and secure a firearms certificate if you have been jailed between for three months and three years after five years, but if you serve anything longer than three years you are not allowed to have a firearms licence at all. How do you set these sort of limits and targets and are they appropriate? Should we be looking at the type of sentences that people serve before deciding whether they should be able to apply for a firearms licence? Give us a sense about how this has been determined and how you look at these issues.

Chris Philp: Clearly the length of a criminal sentence generally reflects the seriousness of the crime, so the sentence length is quite a good proxy for how serious a particular offence has been. It is obviously helpful to have some kind of hard and fast rule, like the three-year rule for instance, which makes decision-making quicker and easier, and sets the boundaries. Any boundary, whether it is three years or any other number, is bound to be a little bit arbitrary because any line in the sand is, by definition. The alternative is to have no line in the sand at all, but that potentially wastes time and resources in looking at cases where it is pretty open and shut. You then get into the more ambiguous circumstances, like a three-month to three-year sentence that has been handed down more than five years ago or a custodial sentence of under three months at any time. I assume it is still discretionary in those cases, the police can still look at that.

Nick Hunt: Indeed. The overall point is that for anyone who has a criminal conviction, regardless of whether they have been in prison or not, the police look really hard at whether or not they will issue that person. It is difficult. Again, are there risks to public safety or the peace? They will look at the relevance and seriousness of the offence and how long ago it was committed as part of the information across the board to decide whether that person is fit to have a licence.

Q209       Chair: Somebody who has served up to three years for a white collar crime, for instance, may be able to apply, but where a violent crime was involved and somebody received a sentence of less than three yearsI am sure that the bigger risk is from those who have been involved in violent crime.

Chris Philp: As Nick said, the police would have that information available. Even if a particular person was not automatically disqualified, the police could still look at those facts, as you described them, and make a judgment in the round. Clearly if somebody had committed a violent offence, even if it fell below those thresholds, one would assume that they would—

Q210       Wendy Chamberlain: I am wondering if it is aligned with the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, where convictions become spent or not. That would provide a degree of consistency.

Chris Philp: I don’t think it is.

Nick Hunt: I would need to check that point. I am not an expert on the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act.

Chris Philp: I spent some of my time as a Minister in the MOJ and the suspending of convictions is an England and Wales matter and potentially different in Scotland. Speaking purely from memory, I don’t think it is the same, no.

Chair: It would be helpful to clarify that just to help us.

Q211       Wendy Chamberlain: I think the Chair’s point stands that you hope that a violent offence with less than three years would be taken in the police consideration.

Chris Philp: Absolutely, and that is my expectation.

Q212       David Duguid: Thank you, Minister and Mr Hunt, for joining us today and congratulations, Minister, on your appointment.

On the subject of investigations, some of the differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK have been discussed already. For example, the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner, the PIRC, in Scotland independently investigates incidents involving the police, and the Independent Office for Police Conduct, IOPC, investigates similarly in England and Wales. To what extent is best practice shared between those two organisations?

Nick Hunt: The reports produced by the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner are looked at very closely by us in the Home Office, by the Scottish Government as well as the National Police Chief’s Council and the IOPC. We will be looking for any learning identified by PIRC investigating the incident in Skye to see its relevance and whether we need to look hard at the policy in this space. We look at these reports and they are flagged to us by the Scottish Government and Police Scotland so that we are aware of them.

Q213       David Duguid: I have been very careful not to mention the incident in Skye because I was subject to sub judice, but you are right that that would come into effect when the investigation is complete. Can the Home Office provide any evidence of lessons that have been learned in that way that have been put into practice?

Nick Hunt: We look in England and Wales at coroners’ inquests and preventing future deaths reports. We look at reports by the independent inspectorates; for example the report by the inspector in 2015 led to changes in legislation and the introduction of statutory guidance that applies in England and Wales and in Scotland as well. We look very hard at reports produced by IOPC and PIRC and other organisations investigating so that we can learn best practice and we understand where the system needs to be reviewed. We very much are focusing on making sure that the firearms controls in this country are as strong as possible. We need to be open to recommendations and views made by others so that we make sure the law is in the right place.

Q214       David Duguid: Sticking with the sharing of learnings between the UK Government Home Office and the devolved Administrations, can you say anything generally about how the UK Government and the Scottish Government work together, particularly on the subject of firearms licensing when it impacts or is impacted by certain decisions or decision-making processes that are devolved, like the input of GPs about people’s mental health, for example, or indeed the police?

Nick Hunt: We work very closely with the Scottish Government and Police Scotland, for example on medical arrangements. In England and Wales we work very closely with the NHS and the British Medical Association. We keep the Scottish Government informed on the conversations we are having so they can have similar discussions with the Chief Medical Officer in Scotland. We came to very similar arrangements in 2016 on the use of medical checks. In January 2022 the Chief Medical Officer in Scotland and the Scottish Government came to a very similar arrangement to that in England and Wales on the use of medical checks. We are sharing information all the time, making sure that medical checks are consistent in Scotland or in England and Wales, and we look to Scotland, or Scotland looks to us, on how we are making sure that the checks are as robust as possible.

David Duguid: Thanks for that. I wonder, Chair, if it might be appropriate to ask if there is some specific evidence of an actual change in how things are done based on lessons learned, either investigation or in dealing with devolved factors. That could be fed in later. I think you gave a bit of an example there from last year, but on the investigation process in particular, perhaps after current investigations are complete, we would be very interested to hear if there is an example of something that has been changed as a result of that. Thanks.

Q215       Sally-Ann Hart: Good afternoon, Minister Philp and Mr Hunt. David touched on this with the medical checks, but looking at the mental health and firearms licensing, poor mental health and inadequate assessment of it during the licensing process were regarded as key in the shooting tragedy that we have seen in Scotland and in Dunblane earlier. We have heard a number of suggestions during our inquiry on raising concerns about mental health, including the setting up of a specific hotline for people to phone up if they have concerns or that the applicant’s family members or former partners should be interviewed to assess the applicant’s suitability for a licence. What would be the advantages and disadvantages of a hotline to report concerns? Is it Mr Hunt or Minister Philp who might pick this up first?

Chris Philp: You mentioned a couple of ideas there: first, some sort of particular phoneline; and, secondly, whether family members of applicants should be interviewed. It is worth saying on the phoneline that there is a number of established routes through which peoplemembers of the public or family memberscan report concerns about someone who holds a licence. The regular 101 service is an example and the domestic abuse helpline is another. There are existing channels where people can register those concerns. The disadvantage of introducing a bespoke line is the additional cost that would introduce. The benefit is a public-badged place to go but there would be a cost with that and it would somewhat duplicate existing channels.

On the point about interviewing family members, the police, in granting an application or renewing an application, can interview family members if they choose to. It is not mandatory, it is choice, but if they pick up something of concern or they see something in an applicant’s records when they do a search, they can interview family members, but it is not mandatory. Were such a mandatory requirement to be introduced—I think Canada has something similar—it would mean that everybody got checked, but it would introduce some risk that the person might be coerced or intimidated by their partner who was applying for a licence. It would introduce that risk and I suppose it would give that person something like a veto right over a partner getting hold of a firearm, a sort of backdoor veto.

There are arguments on both sides of that question, but the most important thing to say is that there are existing channels to report concerns that would then be escalated to the police if someone is concerned. As I say, if there are indicators, if there are markers that someone might be unsuitable for reasons of their behaviour towards their partner or their wider family, those markers can be followed up by the police with an interview of family members.

Q216       Sally-Ann Hart: We heard concerns raised about people being able to get through to 101, but presumably that depends on what police force it is and whatever message they have online.

Do you think that the current arrangements are adequate for people to raise their concerns? If not, what do you think could be put in place to make that adequate?

Chris Philp: I think that they are adequate, broadly speaking. However, as we said at the very beginning, we are continually listening and seeking opportunities to improve the way that the legislation and the guidance operate. In particular we want to study the recommendations made by this Committee, since you have taken so much time and trouble to have witnesses and to gather written information. We will certainly look very carefully at the recommendations this Committee makes.

Q217       Sally-Ann Hart: Do you think that the Government should undertake a review into how people could report their concerns, or will you wait and see what the Committee recommends?

Chris Philp: As we said at the very beginning, we keep these things under ongoing scrutiny as a matter of routine, but we will certainly look at your report when it comes out and respond as appropriate.

Q218       Sally-Ann Hart: Thank you. Looking at the flagging system, the GP flagging system has been put in place on the GP records, I understand, and that can highlight whether someone has a firearms certificate. Do you think that the UK Government need to put in place any policy changes to support licence-holders’ mental health? There is already a flagging system but do you think that there should be policy changes to support firearms licence-holders’ mental health?

Chris Philp: The mental health question is a very important one and it is very likely to be relevant in a number of the cases that we are all aware of. The statutory guidance is very clear that no one should be granted a firearms certificate unless a doctor has confirmed to police whether there are any relevant medical conditions, including conditions that relate to mental health. The decision made by the police to grant or not grant a firearms licence is made considering that medical information, along with the other information that they have received.

We already ask GPs to put a firearms marker on the patient’s record where they possess a firearms licence so that the GPs can alert the police if the person holding a licence begins to experience a medical condition, particularly a mental health condition, during the period that their certificate is valid. Although that is a request not a requirement, there is pretty good compliance by the medical community. The figures I have been provided for Scotland suggest that 95% of GP practices in Scotland engage with the medical check systems for firearms. I think that is a very welcome statistic.

As you have heard already, the statutory guidance that was introduced on 1 November 2021 made it a requirement that police sources consider medical information. In fact, Police Scotland has been doing that since 2016 and there is some further clarity given on the obligations on GPs that was provided by a letter from the Chief Medical Officer for Scotland and Police Scotland jointly that was updated in January this year. I think that it has been fairly clearly set out.

Q219       Sally-Ann Hart: You say that it is a request not a requirement, but 95% of doctors have engaged with that. Do you think it should be a requirement?

Chris Philp: If something is working well in practice, I hesitate somewhat for the Government to intervene with regulation or statute where it is essentially working already, but again I am always happy to keep it under review and to look at recommendations that the Committee may have.

Q220       Sally-Ann Hart: We heard during our inquiry that there is concern that perhaps licence holders might not go to the doctor, the GP, if they have mental health concerns because they would be worried that their licence might be revoked. Do you think that there is any action that the Government might take in those sort of cases?

Chris Philp: There always has to be a medical report. Following the statutory guidance from 2021—and in Scotland they were doing it before 2021—there has to be a medical report. There is no way for an applicant to bypass that requirement. Even if they go to a commercial medical company rather than their GP, perhaps for the reason that you mentioned, the medical information provided by the commercial third party has to be based on information held by the applicant’s GP. In addition to that, the independent doctor who might do a check or report has to be registered with the GMC and have a licence to practise. I think it is fairly tight as it stands, but we are always happy to look at recommendations the Committee might make.

Q221       Sally-Ann Hart: This is just after a licence has been granted, so it might be a five-year long licence. If someone develops mental health issues during the term of the licence, they are worried that if they go to their doctor they will have their licence revoked. Do you think that there should be some sort of action that the Government might take or put in place to ensure that people who develop mental health issues once they have a licence go see their GP? They have had their medical signoff to start with, but they develop mental health issues during the term of their licence.

Chris Philp: Of course we can’t force someone to go and see a GP, and in a sense the more that we tighten up the system, perversely the less likely somebody might be to seek medical advice. For example, if we mandated a system where any form of interaction with a mental health practitioner, whether a GP, a hospital or anything, somehow gets fed on to a central database, that might inhibit people with a mental health issue from contacting anyone. You have to be careful about the perverse consequences, but the concept of asking GPs to keep police updated, which by and large does happen, is something we ask them to do and there is very good engagement, as we discussed earlier. Broadly that is a good thing but, as always, there are two sides to the argument.

Nick Hunt: In addition to what the Minister said, as well as medical information, it could be that the behaviour manifests in other ways that might be picked up by the police. One of the things that we are stressing as part of the statutory guidance and working with the police is the continuous assessment process. They are looking at other police intelligence databases or whatever to make sure that they are picking up issues about individuals with firearms certificates. Shooting clubs are very responsible as well. They have liaison officers who liaise with the local force. In Scotland there is the mental health leaflet, which very helpfully sets out circumstances in which they might want to talk to other people in the club. It might be that their friends and colleagues in the shooting club bring it to the attention of the relevant police force so that action could be taken by that police force. If they are trying to conceal a condition, the certificate might be revoked and certainly they will not get a certificate next time round if they were shown to be concealing an illness that they should have gone to their GP about.

Q222       Chair: I am looking at the figures here and apparently as of 31 March 2022 there were 25,345 firearms certificates on issue in Scotland. To give that some sort of balance, across the UK there are 151,218 on issue in England and Wales. That is an awful lot, isn’t it? I know some of these are multiple ownerspeople will have a collection of guns and may have their weapons associated with thatbut what do you feel when you hear numbers like that? Does it concern you at all, Minister, when so many people seem to have a licence for a firearm?

Chris Philp: One has to read the numbers in the context of the total population of the UK of 67 million, getting on for 70 million. You also have to read the numbers in the context of the numbers I gave in my opening remarks, where in that two-year period I mentioned there were four firearms-related homicides in Scotland and in general firearms-related offences in Scotland and England and Wales have been declining. Taking the country as a whole, about 5% of all homicides are firearms-related. I think that is an important context to keep in mind. My own view about firearms is that it is right that we are tough on this and if we can tighten up further, we should do. I certainly would not ever want to see us get into the situation like the one in the USA where firearms are totally prevalent, and we have seen how terrible that is.

Q223       Chair: Thankfully we are not in that situation at all. The culture here is entirely different from what we observe in the USA. Is there not a perception that the more guns that are in circulation the more opportunity there is for things to go wrong and for incidents like this to happen? The Gun Control Network raised the issue that some people have up to four licences for specific guns. I know that people will be responsible and look after them, but is there nothing about these numbers that says that maybe we are giving gun licence arrangements away too easily and readily?

Chris Philp: I wouldn’t say that I think we are giving them away too easily. The checks are pretty stringent and the process in Great Britain is among the strictest in the world, which I think is right for all the reasons that you set out, Chair. But I think that we need to be eternally vigilant and make sure that if there are any issues or concerns or areas where the regulations could be improved or tightened we should take them.

Q224       Wendy Chamberlain: Thank you, Minister and Mr Hunt, for being here today. I was very pleased to hear that you will be interested to see our report and any recommendations. As well as the report, I ask you to read the transcript of Reverend Gordon Matheson’s evidence at our first session because I think that brought forward the community impact of incidents such as we have seen on Skye.

I want to talk about quality of service and it has been very encouraging for us as a Committee that from a Scottish perspective, Police Scotland seems to be doing very well in how it processes applications and the standard of service. Mr Hunt, I will come to you first. What is Police Scotland getting right and what can other forces learn from it?

Nick Hunt: I think Police Scotland, together with many other forces, is doing the right thing in the processing of applications so that they are not allowing backlogs to build up. There is only a small number of forces, nearly all of which are in England, that have backlogs of cases, and that is for a range of factors. It could be due to lack of staff; it could be the knock-on impact of Covid. It is a range of different factors, but on the whole most forces, including Police Scotland, are doing a good job and making sure that applications are processed.

Q225       Wendy Chamberlain: On the Covid point, the Chair read out the number of licences in the UK and the number in Scotland. With our proportion of population, we see a much higher number of licences given the rural nature of a significant part of our economy. Why do you think some other forces have struggled with it from a Covid perspective when Police Scotland has not?

Nick Hunt: It is a very interesting question. It may be down to how the force organises itself in responding to it, but each force very much has its own reasons for why it can’t process cases in a particular way. On the whole, most forces across England and Wales and Scotland are doing a good job of processing applications in a timely fashion. One of the things we have been trying to do to make sure that forces don’t allow cases to build up is that the chief constable who is the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead is assessing performance across England and Wales forces, but also working closely with Police Scotland, so that any lessons are learned about performance and forces are operating as effectively and efficiently as possible to make sure that the applications are dealt with, balancing public safety but with an efficient process.

Q226       Wendy Chamberlain: One thing that was mentioned in the oral evidence we had from Police Scotland is the automated aspect of their processes. I think that is something the Police Chiefs’ Council should look at. But one of the other pieces of evidence we have had from BASC is about loopholes in the statutory guidance. I assume what is meant by loopholes, having looked at it, is basically areas where the statutory guidance is not necessarily being followed or there is not a degree of consistency. Are you aware, Minister, that we have challenges around ensuring, for example, that referee visits take place?

Chris Philp: The statutory guidance sets out that for the first time a firearms licence is granted, there should be an interview with at least one of the referees. That is clearly set out in the guidance. It is obviously a matter for forces and the inspectorate to make sure the guidance is adhered to. If there is evidence that it is not being adhered to or if there is evidence from other areas of the guidance where there are lacunae or gapsor loopholes evenwe would be very interested to hear about them.

Nick Hunt: We are doing a first year review of the statutory guidance. We have been working very closely with the police forces but also with shooting groups and the Gun Control Network on the views they might have on the statutory guidance, any areas that need strengthening. On the whole we have had a positive response to the publication of the statutory guidance for the first time in November 2021 but of course there are always areas with a new publication that need strengthening, so we are looking at that very closely. One of the areas is, for example, delays and backlogs.

Q227       Wendy Chamberlain: That is being looked at now for the statutory guidance that was published last year?

Nick Hunt: It is, yes.

Q228       Wendy Chamberlain: In my pack here it says that we have application renewals ranging between forces from a few days to backlogs of nearly three years for applications, which is obviously concerning.

I will come on now to the cost of firearms licences, which I know has already been raised by other members. Minister, you said that that was the first thing that you wanted to look at, but I suppose one of the challenges we have is that the Fees Working Group, which includes those from shooting organisations and interests, feels that potentially moving to full cost recovery for licences too soon is rewarding failure. It feels that its members are not necessarily getting that quality of service. It sounds to me from your evidence so far that you are committed to that full cost recovery. What are the plans for going ahead with that?

Chris Philp: We are conducing the review at the moment. It strikes me as a principle that if a particular group needs licensing—and clearly there is a very strong case, an arguable case here that it needs licensing—it is reasonable that that is paid for by the people needing and benefiting from the licence rather than from the general taxpayer and the public as a whole. The review is being conducted broadly with that thought in mind.

To your point about is the service being offered in an efficient way, no doubt the review will consider that but on the question about are the delays evidence that it is not being well administered, I think—and Nick will correct me if I get this wrong—of the 43 forces in England and Wales, or 44 if you include Police Scotland, only seven of those have significant backlog problems. As Nick suggested, we are working with the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead to make sure that those seven forces take steps to fix the backlog. Police Scotland is not one of those seven; it is performing well, as you said in your question earlier.

Q229       Wendy Chamberlain: Thank you. What barriers do you see with a full cost system? I represent a more rural constituency and I am concerned about adding those costs to the rural economy but I also accept that firearms licensing is incredibly unusual in that we are in a position where there is a cost borne by the public purse for that licensing. What do you see as the barriers beyond in introducing a full cost system? How difficult do you think it will be to implement that?

Chris Philp: I don’t think it will be particularly difficult. We need to see the result of the review and sanity check to make sure that all the recommendations meet the common sense or reasonableness test. If they produce recommendations that at first glance, applying a common sense appraisal, look obviously egregiously unreasonable we would want to think vey carefully about that, but I think the principle is a reasonable one.

Q230       Wendy Chamberlain: On that reasonableness, we are seeing some differences in cost between forces in processing. Will we be looking at somewhere in the middle for some of the forces that have a much higher cost burden?

Chris Philp: I do not want to pre-empt the result of the review, but I think if we see significant outliers either for cost or performancewe touched on that earlier with those roughly seven forceswe will want to work with those forces to try to address any inefficiency. You have mentioned that Police Scotland has a highly automated system. If there is a hypothetical force somewhere else in the country that does not have the level of automation, that is perhaps very manual and as a consequence of that has a backlog or a high cost base—obviously they are operationally independent and we can’t compel—we would like to draw their attention to the good practice elsewhere.

Q231       Wendy Chamberlain: Pointing them to work with other forces to potentially centralise some of their facilities together. Police Scotland has seen a benefit from it becoming one force. Eight forces operations have become one, which has allowed them to realise some efficiencies.

Chris Philp: Our forces are operationally independent and it is up to them to decide how they organise themselves, but the sort of idea you are suggesting and the case study we have seen in Scotland is a very interesting one.

Q232       Wendy Chamberlain: Certainly forces throughout the UK work together on other things as well. Finally on this topic, do you think that there should be a difference in the cost of licences for firearms for work and applications to shoot for leisure?

Chris Philp: The different licensing regime for shotguns compared to firearms partly already reflects the difference. The cost of the overhead to the police in issuing a shotgun licence or a firearms licence is the same regardless of the purpose. It would also introduce a bit of ambiguity if we had to categorise every application as either for work or for leisure. Who would check that; would it be self-declared? It could end up introducing an additional layer of ambiguity that may be unhelpful for the police and the applicants.

Nick Hunt: In addition to what the Minister was saying, we follow Treasury guidance in managing public money and there is quite strict guidance on differentiating between different groups. We will be consulting on this and there will be an impact assessment that looks at the impact on different groups. If you are using it for your work as opposed to your leisure activity no doubt will be one of the impacts we will be looking at in the options for the consultation.

Q233       Wendy Chamberlain: Great, thanks very much. One very last question that is not related. Minister, earlier you said that it is important to have a UK-wide system given that there are no boundaries. I am interested in your thoughts on the fact that we have air rifle legislation in Scotland. Have the UK Government looked at that for other parts of the UK?

Chris Philp: Air rifles clearly are far less lethal than shotguns or firearms. I am not aware of any move to look at that in England and Wales.

Nick Hunt: We did a review a couple of years ago and it concluded that we preferred to use the criminal law in focusing on the actual issues of young people getting unauthorised access to air rifles and concentrating on that as an area for potential reform. The Government consulted on this about 12 months ago under firearms safety and there is a view that we are looking to legislate when we can on access to weapons by under 17-year-olds: where they can do it; where on private land; whether it is supervised or not. That is part of the work that we have been doing over the past couple of years.

Chris Philp: That clearly reflects the fact that air rifles are a lot less lethal than shotguns and firearms.

Wendy Chamberlain: It is good to know that you are looking at those areas as well.

Q234       Chair: We are looking at legislation for firearms licensing, but one of the things that has come out very powerfully in the evidence that we have secured in this inquiry is the trauma that this brings to communities, particularly what we saw and witnessed in the Isle of Skyesmall remote communities that have an interdependency that is perhaps different and unique from other parts of the United Kingdom. I know that this is really a matter for the Scottish Government, and we spoke to the Scottish Government Minister who kindly came along to this Committee to help us out, but I wonder if you have any particular thoughts. There are huge rural areasI am thinking of Wales and the south-west of England, for examplewhere there is a need or a requirement to give extra support when these types of incidents happen. We heard very powerfully from a lot of people in the local community that this leaves a real legacy and a real difficulty. Do you have any particular views on that, Minister?

Chris Philp: You are quite right, Chair, to point out that where tragedies happen it traumatises the community. I think that applies not just in rural areas, as you have said, but it applies anywhere, even in an urban constituency like mine. We had a tragedy with a tram accident. That is very different to a shooting but there were seven fatalities and even in an urban area it affects the whole community in a very deep and profound way. There was a terrible incident in Plymouth as well. It does affect communities and you are absolutely right to say that. It is very important to offer a lot of support where it happens via the local authority, devolved Governments, as in Scotland. It is important because people feel it very deeply when something like this happens in their neighbourhood, in their community.

Chair: In the course of this evidence session, we have heard of an incident that is emerging in Stonehaven in Aberdeenshire where armed police have been called to an incident and there are reports of hostage taking. I am not expecting you to comment on this, Minister, but for us looking at these issues they hone the reality of the everyday experience of armed police officers having to respond to unknown, dangerous situations and doing all these things on behalf of us to keep us safe. It is worth bringing that up at the end of this session.

Unless you have anything further add, we have got you out in an hour, which I think is pretty good going for a Select Committee looking at these things. Thank you ever so much for joining us this afternoon and I think we have got everything that we require. If there is anything else you feel you could usefully help us with in the course of this inquiry, please get back in touch with the Committee.