Applications under the Firearms Acts: fees

Policing and Crime Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:00 am on 12th April 2016.

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Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Home Office) 11:00 am, 12th April 2016

I beg to move amendment 228, in clause 80, page 83, line 31, leave out

“the amount of any fee that may be charged” and insert

“that the fee charged must be equal to the full cost to the tax payer of issuing a licence.”.

This amendment would ensure that the firearms licensing system achieves full cost recovery.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 229, in clause 80, page 84, line 7, leave out

“the amount of any fee that may be charged”

and insert

“that the fee charged must be equal to the full cost to the tax payer of issuing a licence.”.

This amendment would ensure that the firearms licensing system achieves full cost recovery.

Amendment 230, in clause 80, page 84, line 27, leave out

“the amount of any fee that may be charged”

and insert

“that the fee charged must be equal to the full cost to the tax payer of issuing a licence.”.

This amendment would ensure that the firearms licensing system achieves full cost recovery.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Home Office)

These amendments would be a first step towards ending state subsidy of gun ownership. They would achieve that goal by ensuring that the full costs of licensing prohibited weapons, pistol clubs and museums are recovered.

Full cost recovery was a Labour manifesto pledge. It is a key objective of the Gun Control Network, and it is even stated as a policy goal in the explanatory notes accompanying the Bill. It would therefore appear that we are all united in wanting to achieve the same end. However, the Bill would bring the licensing fee regime of prohibited weapons, pistol clubs and museums in line with the fees regime that exists for standard section 1 firearms. That is a problem. I do not believe that the fees regime for section 1 firearms provides for full cost recovery, so I do not have the confidence that these proposals will achieve full cost recovery for the licences that they control.

The Bill deals with relatively narrow issues around licensing fees. At the moment, there is no system to recover costs from the licensing of prohibited weapons. Subsection (1) will allow authorities to set fees for very powerful, prohibited weapons, such as rocket launchers, which can only be obtained with the permission of the UK Defence Council. The fee will be variable and set by the Secretary of State by regulations, just as is presently the case for ordinary section 1 firearms.

Subsections (2) and (3) deal with the licensing of pistol clubs and museums respectively. At the moment, such fees are fixed under the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988, and the Secretary of State does not have the power to change them by secondary legislation. The Bill will bring the licensing system for those institutions in line with the licensing system for individual firearm owners by granting the Secretary of State the power to change the fees by regulation and by allowing variable fees. The Bill does not actually propose any change in the fees for pistol clubs or museums, and as a result the amount of money that these proposals involve is relatively small.

The Government estimate that these changes will bring in £570,000 a year for the Home Office, £78,000 for the English and Welsh police, £42,000 for the Scottish Government and £6,000 for Police Scotland. As it is said, every little helps. That increased revenue is welcome, as is the capacity for the Secretary of State to change the fees when the costs of licensing increase; but however welcome these changes are, the unfortunate truth is that these proposals will only make a small dent in the gun ownership subsidy that still persists in this country.

In the previous Parliament, the Labour party campaigned on full cost recovery. Fees for section 1 firearms had remained frozen for too long, and as a result the taxpayer was subsidising gun ownership to the tune of £17 million a year. That is insane. The police estimated that the cost of licensing a firearm was £196, yet the fee was stuck at £50. The taxpayer was paying three quarters of the cost of a gun owner getting a licence.

To be fair to the coalition Government, they did respond to the pressure. A working group was set up by the Home Office, the police and the British Association for Shooting and Conservation to consider the matter. After negotiations, it proposed that an £88 fee would be mutually acceptable to the police and shooters. The £88 fee was considerably short of the £196 that the police had independently estimated to be the true cost of licensing guns, but it was still a welcome increase. The £88 fee was finally introduced just before the general election. However, the fee was frozen for 14 years before it was finally increased. The £88 fee was arrived at only after negotiations with BASC and was not imposed following independent estimates.

Our amendments to the Bill would mandate the Secretary of State to set the cost of a licence for prohibited weapons, pistol clubs and museums at the full cost to the taxpayer. A legal requirement that the fee match the full cost would take some of the politics out of the process. The fee decisions would be based on an evidential analysis, conducted by the Home Office, of the true cost to the taxpayer. If the process proved to be successful for prohibited weapons, pistol clubs and museums, the Minister could consider extending it to section 1 firearms. This legislation could be a first step to true full cost recovery.

I will be interested to hear the Minister’s views on the issue. I urge him to accept amendments 228, 229 and 230. The taxpayer should not have to subsidise gun ownership, as it currently does. Our amendments would be a first step to bringing that unfairness to an end once and for all. Labour pushed hard for full cost recovery in the previous Parliament, and we have seen some movement from the Government on the issue. I urge the Minister to work with us, both by accepting our amendments today and by looking at the issue of section 1 licences in the future, to achieve what seems to be a realistic and realisable common goal.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning The Minister of State, Home Department, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

We are as one on the fact that the taxpayer should not subsidise licensing. The Bill, which is about Home Office licences, will not have an effect on police fees. However, given that the shadow Minister referred to police licence fees, I will respond to that as well. I completely agree that this should have been done years and years ago, under several Administrations. I will therefore look at police licence fees, which the Bill does not do, but which the hon. Lady was referring to.

The legislation has been changed. As from April 2015, police licence fees increased by between 23% and 76%, depending on the certificate type. That is the first increase since 2001. Once the new police online system, eCommerce, is introduced, fees will recover the full costs of licensing. That is specific: it is in the legislation. I had problems myself with the coalition Government, along with several of my colleagues.

Let us look briefly at the Home Office licence fees. I completely agree that it is wrong that the taxpayer is subsidising other organisations. Currently, combined, the authorisation and licensing of prohibited weapons, shooting clubs and museums costs the taxpayer an estimated £700,000 a year. I do not feel that the amendment is necessary: I will explain why. Clause 80 will create a consistent set of charging powers across all Home Office firearms licences and authorities. The Government’s intention is that licence holders, and not the taxpayer, should pay the full cost. The Government will set fees at the appropriate level, based on clause 80, but with agreement from the Treasury. Fees will be set out in a public consultation later this year, which will give affected organisations the chance to raise any issues. Final fee amounts will be introduced via regulations subject to the negative procedure.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Home Office)

What is the need for consultation on this? If the Home Office is going to impose the full cost of the licence fee on the person who is applying for the licence, what are we consulting about? If the consultation comes back with some interested group saying, “We can’t afford this—we only really want 50% or 30%,” might the Government be minded to agree with that, rather than impose the full 100% of the cost?

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning The Minister of State, Home Department, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

There are frustrations in being a Minister, as former Ministers know. Consultation is a requirement, because we are likely to be challenged in law. That is why we consult. We will say what we want to do and then consult. One area where there may be real concern is the cost to museums. That is right. Other organisations may want to put their four pennyworth in, as often happens in consultations. We would not want to have a massively adverse effect on museums, though, so we will need to look at that. When proposing changes to legislation or to use delegated powers, it is always best to consult.

Photo of Jake Berry Jake Berry Conservative, Rossendale and Darwen

Other people affected by this will be gamekeepers. For example, several gamekeepers in my constituency require a firearm for their job; so I hope that the Government will consider extremely widely. I do not think that, as a matter of principle, we should be saying that the Government should never subsidise sports. I am not particularly interested in volleyball, but I am very happy that we had the London Olympics, with £9 billion of Government money spent on hosting them. I do not think that the principle that we should never subsidise sport should be set out in law, so I hope that the Government will consider this and consult widely.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning The Minister of State, Home Department, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I fully understand what my hon. Friend is saying. There is now a confusion between police licence fees and Home Office licensing fees. Gamekeepers will be dealt with under police licensing for shotguns for the control of vermin and so on. This part of the legislation is different: it is to do with Home Office licensing, for armed guards or merchant shipping, for example. Whether a museum is holding weapons—they are still tangible weapons—is separate. I understand that there is confusion: we look at police fees and licensing and think of that as one thing, but they are two different things. Police licensing fees have been set for the first time since 2001, but that is a different issue altogether. I will write to my hon. Friend to confirm exactly what I just said. However, with that and what I propose about using delegated legislation powers later in the year in mind, I hope that the hon. Lady will withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Home Office) 11:15 am, 12th April 2016

I am grateful to the Minister for making my day—that is a great birthday present for tomorrow. I look forward to receiving his letter, which will provide clarification. I will bring this back on Report if everything is not as hunky-dory as we think. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 80 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 81