Official Report: Minutes of Evidence

Committee for Justice , meeting on Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr A Ross (Chairperson)
Mr Raymond McCartney (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Stewart Dickson
Mr S Douglas
Mr Tom Elliott
Mr Paul Frew
Mr Seán Lynch
Mr Patsy McGlone
Mr A Maginness
Mr Edwin Poots


Ms Donna Giboney, Department of Justice
Mr Robert Kidd, Department of Justice
Mr Simon Rogers, Department of Justice

Firearms Licensing Fees and Miscellaneous Amendments to Firearms Legislation: Department of Justice

The Chairperson (Mr Ross): I welcome from the Department of Justice Simon Rogers, the deputy director of the protection and organised crime division; Robert Kidd, the head of the division's firearms and explosives branch; and Donna Giboney, from the firearms and explosives branch. I remind you that the meeting will be recorded by Hansard and will appear on the Assembly website in due course.

When you are ready, I invite to you to begin, and Committee members will ask questions afterwards.

Mr Simon Rogers (Department of Justice): Thank you, Chair. We are here to update the Committee on the work that we have been undertaking on firearms issues. You have a paper setting out the Minister's views on the minimum age of young shooters, the proposal for the banded system and an indication of where we are on the review of fees.

Having considered the issues associated with young shooters again, the Minister is still of the view that a young person should be of secondary-school age before firing a shotgun, that the appropriate venue is an authorised clay pigeon club and that live quarry should not be involved. It follows that the youngest that the Minister believes that live quarry should be engaged is age 16. He believes that young shooters can develop skills through target shooting and clay shooting at regulated, authorised clubs up to 16 and that they may shoot live quarry from that age, under supervision.

We have been engaging on the issue of the bands for some time. It is fair to say that the Department and the police had a number of concerns about public safety, including risks from handling transactions and firearms, and about firearms being provided for circumstances in which the original approval was not applicable. The important starting point for the debate is that Northern Ireland already has a more flexible regime than almost anywhere else through one-on, one-off applications for shotguns, as well as a same type and calibre scheme. There is therefore already considerable flexibility.

Current guidelines set out a range of bands for the police to consider when looking at variations. They will ordinarily allow variation, provided good reason exists. We had suggested to stakeholders that the police would operate a new fast-track regime utilising those bands and that that would lead, in the vast majority of cases, to a turnaround time of five working days. A number of stakeholders questioned why dealers rather than the police should not undertake the exchange. We explained that our licensing system is based on the Chief Constable having responsibility for making the decision and that that provides a safeguard. We further explained that, were the Chief Constable not to be making the decision, we would need to take a more precautionary approach, because of the risk of error and inappropriate transactions where there is no good reason.

With that in mind, we have worked up with police experts the banded system that is before the Committee today. It represents a significant move away from our previous position, in that dealers will lead on the exchanges. We have excluded certain categories to manage the risk and also to make the system more straightforward for the hundred or so dealers who could operate it. Naturally, we would provide guidance to them on the regime were it to be followed. It is important to mention that, just because a transaction did not fall within a band, it does not mean that a variation cannot be sought from the Chief Constable. That is the normal route for change in almost all other jurisdictions.

What we have put on the table is, as far as we can tell, unique. We circulated the proposals on young shooters and bands to our stakeholders, and we held a meeting on Monday 23 February to explain them. It is fair to say that some groups have engaged on the proposals and some have not. Those who have engaged have effectively accepted the proposal as set out, although there is, of course, a need to work out the detail; for example, around authorisation. Three groups wrote stating that they do not accept the proposals. Nonetheless, we have invited their comments but, to date, have not had any. We have offered them the opportunity to put in comments at this stage, and we hope that they will take up that offer. I recognise, of course, that all groups wish to see the fee proposals before making final comments, because the fees will be relevant to the cost of an authorisation of a club, the cost of the banded exchange, and so on.

Following what we felt was a very constructive workshop on fees on 3 December, and, naturally, with police agreement, we asked the Business Consultancy Service (BCS) in the Department of Finance and Personnel to review a number of police processes to ensure that they were efficient and appropriately costed, with a view to driving down costs where possible. That work by BCS is nearing completion, and, once received — hopefully in the next few weeks — we will set up a further workshop with the stakeholders, before coming back to the Committee. At that point, decisions will need to be made on the way forward. Clearly, some aspects of the proposals would require legislation, whether primary or secondary.

Thank you, Chair, for the opportunity to give that summary.

The Chairperson (Mr Ross): The issue has been rumbling on for a considerable time. The most recent occasion on which officials came to the Committee was before my time on it. It does not appear that there has been a meeting of minds on the proposals between you and the core stakeholders. Is that fair to say? I listened to you say that it was a significant move and that those who have engaged have effectively accepted them. There are, nonetheless, sizeable groups that have not accepted the proposals. Is that right?

Mr Simon Rogers: That is right. A number of the groups that attended — in fact, all the groups that attended on 23 February — accepted what we proposed on young shooters and bands. Three other groups did not attend and, to date, do not accept them. That obviously presents us with a difficult conundrum. On the one hand, the Minister is clear as to the line he is taking, while, on the other hand, there are issues, particularly with the banded system, on which we would be happy to engage further to see whether there can be, as we put it in our submission to the Committee, any fine-tuning of the detail. You are right, however, to say that we have not got widespread agreement.

Mr McGlone: I am intrigued, because the issue has been around for a long time, as you said. I share the frustrations of those key stakeholders who did not attend. Frankly, the initial proposal for the banding system was starting to make sense. There is no doubt about that. I could see on the basis of my own limited knowledge that it made sense, but the proposal before us, although it makes sense in bands 1 and 2, makes absolutely no sense — in fact, it borders on nonsense — in bands 3, 4 and 5. I would like to know what has changed from the original bands.

Mr Simon Rogers: The difference is that the scheme that we are proposing would be managed by the Chief Constable, who would use existing variation bands when considering a request and turn the application around. However, he would also be able to look at risks. For example, if a firearm being proposed was on loan or not of the calibre in the bands, the Chief Constable could rectify that before a sale had been made. We said at the workshop that, if we were to go down the route of putting the responsibility in the hands of dealers, we would need to look at a more constricted approach in order to avoid difficulties.

Mr McGlone: With the greatest of respect, can we ignore the administrative aspect? I want to know the logic for the change. I am not talking about the management of the process but about the realities. Why did the proposals change? I simply do not understand the proposed bandings 3, 4 and 5 or why there are now three instead of the one — band C — that was in the original proposal. I am trying to understand what has changed and why others have disappeared off the list. What has changed practically in the evaluation of those firearms to make them, instead of being in one band, split into three bands? You have described them as "fox rounds".

Mr Simon Rogers: The fundamental premise of the existing law is that the Chief Constable makes decisions around good reason, and, therefore, decisions rest in his hands. The proposal on the table now is for the Chief Constable no longer to have the ability to make a decision up front on the exchange of a firearm. We have tried to take out the corners, or the shadows, if you like, where there could be difficulties. I could give you a list of examples of the difficulties that we have experienced.

Mr McGlone: Sorry, and with the greatest respect, I am not looking for difficulties, Mr Rogers. I am looking for the rationale behind the proposal to move from band C — one band covering those calibres — to three different bands. I do a wee bit of shooting myself. You know that. It does not make any sense to me, as a practitioner.

Mr Simon Rogers: I will ask Robert to come in shortly, as he has been engaging with the PSNI's centre for information on firearms and explosives (CIFEx).

Mr McGlone: Are you saying that the original proposal for band C was rubbish? It was your Department that drafted up the proposals after consultation with stakeholders and practitioners. That proposal had logic to it, but splitting the band into not two but three makes no sense.

Mr Simon Rogers: It is chalk and cheese. One is to be managed by the Chief Constable, who has statutory responsibility, while the other is to be managed by a firearms' dealer. My second point is this: although some groups do not support the bands as drawn up, a number of the other groups that we met on the 23 February did.

Mr McGlone: You have not answered my question. I am talking not about the process but about the logic behind having the bands. There was a logic to the original band, and you then produced new banding. What is the basis for the split into three bands? I want the logic explained on the basis of the firearms.

Mr Robert Kidd (Department of Justice): The easiest way to explain it, Mr McGlone, is to say that the second table is not an evolution of the first. The first one —

Mr McGlone: By the second table, you mean —

Mr Kidd: The later one that you say makes no sense, which is the one with bands 3, 4 and 5. The first table, as Simon said, was part of a scheme to be administered by the Chief Constable. The second scheme was an entirely different proposal, to be administered by firearms' dealers. That scheme had to be different. We spoke to stakeholders at the time and said that, if the scheme were to be administered by dealers, it would have to be tighter, because the Chief Constable retains the responsibility to decide on good reason.

Mr McGlone: Are you telling me that there is no ballistic reason for this?

Mr Kidd: There are ballistic reasons. CIFEx, the police advisers on ballistics, has advised that, if control were to be in the hands of firearms' dealers, they would want the three bands.

Mr McGlone: Well, there are two things arising out of that, and I would like to put them on the record. First, you seem to be crediting firearms' dealers with very little knowledge of firearms, and I would not like to think that that is the case. Secondly, presumably CIFEx was consulted about the first set of proposals.

Mr Kidd: CIFEx was copied into the first set of proposals, but the key information is that, in the first instance, the Chief Constable retained control.

Mr McGlone: Sorry, you have to have logic for anything so that you can stand over it. You did not consult CIFEx on the first set of proposals.

Mr Kidd: The police were consulted.

Mr McGlone: The police were consulted. Did you consult CIFEx on the second set of proposals?

Mr Kidd: Yes.

Mr McGlone: Chair, it would be very helpful if we had both the reports — inevitably you will have such reports — so that we can come to a considered opinion. I suggest, too, that those reports form the basis of consultation with key stakeholders — the major shooting organisations representing the larger body of sportspeople. They have definite expertise in these matters, and any exchange of views may well result in some sort of compromise.

Really, this makes no sense whatsoever. We have moved from a position in which the ballistics made sense to one in which they make no sense. The only two bits that make sense concern air rifles and rimfires. I therefore suggest that the Committee get copies of both reports, including the report on the initial proposals contained in annex C to the proposed banded system. I am talking about the reports from the police and any expert opinion on ballistics or whatever from DOJ, and also the report on which the proposed new bandings are based. That would be very helpful to the Committee, Chair.

Mr Douglas: Thank you for your presentation. How does what you have outlined on the key issues of banding, the fee and young shooters relate to the rest of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland?

Mr Simon Rogers: I will deal with the bands first. The current position, never mind the banded system, is already unique to here. It does not exist elsewhere. That is partly why we are taking a precautionary approach and moving to a system in which the Chief Constable may make a decision to agree or not agree, as opposed to a dealer making a decision that the change will happen. England and Wales are introducing a fee and have done some work around that, including engagement work. At the minute, their fee is £89. We originally had it at £121, and we are doing more work, as I said earlier, to try to see whether we can take costs out of it. In Great Britain, in contrast to here, there is no age consideration. In the Republic of Ireland, it is 14.

Mr Douglas: We are talking about 12-year-olds here, but are you saying that, in the rest of the United Kingdom. It is much —

Mr Simon Rogers: There is no age limit there.


Mr Douglas: depends on what height they are, and on their build as well.

The Chairperson (Mr Ross): Are you aware of any issues with the GB system? Are you aware of accidents or incidents involving young people? There must be a rationale for why we are setting an age limit. Has the experience in GB led the Minister to have that view? What is the Minister's view based on?

Mr Simon Rogers: We asked the Home Office for statistics on firearms incidents involving young people, and it gave us those, but they are not broken down into incidents involving legally held firearms or otherwise. Therefore, we could not rely on those statistics, and we have never sought to rely on them. The Minister's view is that, if we are taking an incremental approach to change, a person below secondary-school age is too young, initially at least, to be given a firearm. He thinks that the proportionate step is to move to 12, based on physical development, and so on. He recognises that that is not the case in target clubs, for example, where there is no age limit here, but that is a different environment. He has also proposed, as part of the package, to put in an enabling provision and review that, but he does not feel that it is appropriate to go from 16 to nought and add a risk. He feels that 12 is a useful staging point. At the meeting on 23 February, the groups present felt that that was appropriate, and the Minister asked us to bring that proposal to the Committee.

Mr Dickson: Simon, we have been around the issues before. Which groups have not engaged with you? Have you tried any alternative methods of engagement with them? It seems to me that, if a group does not wish to engage in the debate with the Department, that makes it very difficult for us to assess its view — indeed, even to take into account its view. I would like to come back to you on the age issue but, first, who is not engaging with you?

Mr Simon Rogers: It is fair to say that all groups engaged in the workshops when we held a couple of them at the tail end of last year. The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), the Gun Trade Guild and the Countryside Alliance have written to say that they do not support our latest set of proposals and are not engaging on them.

Mr Dickson: Is the engagement by way of consultation? You have made changes, and the only way in which those can have come about is from a conversation having taken place. Are they losing out by not having the conversation with you?

Mr Simon Rogers: My view is that, as I said in my opening remarks, we are prepared to fine-tune the banded system. We are happy to have that engagement. We are happy to hear the views of experts and dealers. If they do not have an exchange with us, we are not in a position to take account of their expert opinion. For now, we are relying on what groups that are happy with what we proposed said on 23 February and on the police view. The Minister has looked at that scenario. It would be far better if those three groups did engage with us, and we are still happy at this stage to have engagement, but we have moved a long way on this. We have moved from a proposal that said that the Chief Constable would manage the bands in five working days to putting the system in the hands of the dealers, which, I repeat, is unique.

Mr Dickson: Some of the dealers will not engage with you in the discussion.

Mr Simon Rogers: Yes.

Mr Dickson: I should declare I am not a holder of any licence in this area at all.

May I ask you about the age thing? Currently, we have an age limit of 16. You have said that it is difficult to know what the statistics for the rest of the United Kingdom are for accidents and other incidents. The vast majority of the general public would perceive that, even though shooting is well regulated and extremely well supervised, to move something from the hands of a 16-year-old into those of somebody who is six, seven, eight, nine, 10 or 11 is very much unchartered waters, and therefore not reasonable or proportionate. Any reasonable person would consider that to drop the age limit from 16 to zero would be an irresponsible act. It is one that I do not believe any Minister should be expected to stand over.

Mr Poots: I will talk about the bands first and then move on to young shooters. If I had a .22 Hornet and decided to change to a .220 Swift, which is in a different band, would I have to use different ammunition, or is the same ammunition used in those weapons?

Mr Kidd: It could be the same ammunition.

Mr Poots: They are the same calibre of weapon —

Mr Kidd: That is one of the —

Mr Poots: — but there are two bands of difference between them. It moves from band 3 to 5. Can you explain why, although six of the eight categories in bands 3, 4 and 5 are using the same calibre of bullet, they are in three different bands?

Mr Kidd: One of the issues that have come back is that it is not simply a matter of taking the bullet size from smallest to largest. The issue involves bullet size but also muzzle velocity and kinetic energy. A lot of that is determined not by bullet size alone but by a combination of the bullet size and the cartridge case capacity. That is basically how much propellant the bullet has. The shooters at the table will be aware of that. I am sure that some of the shooters will also be familiar with the likes of the Hornady ballistics tables, which show that, for a certain firearm, a range of different ammunition types can be used. We have taken advice from PSNI and CIFEx. Average, or typical, rounds will be used, but quite a degree of variation is possible within those.

Mr Poots: When is it safe to shoot a rifle?

Mr Kidd: That is a decision for the shooter.

Mr Poots: Yes, but there always needs to be a backdrop. You do not shoot a rifle on a plain of land where there is potential for the bullet to travel into something that you did not aim at, am I right?

Mr Kidd: Yes.

Mr Poots: If you have taken reasonable and sensible precautions, does it matter whether the bullet is travelling at 60 feet per second or 90 feet per second? If you have not taken the appropriate precautions, I do not really want to be hit by a bullet at either 60 feet per second or 90 feet per second.

Mr McGlone tried to tease out where the logic is here. I do not see the logic in putting weapons that are very similar into three different bands on the basis that the bullets may travel at a different speed depending on the velocity of the weapon. In the first instance, these are dangerous weapons if they are not handled correctly. If they are handled correctly, the power difference should not apply. My driving licence covers me to drive a Lamborghini, and it covers me to drive a car that has very low power. People are either skilled up to use the weapon or not skilled up to use it, in which case they should not have it at all. I am with Mr McGlone in struggling to see where the logic is in having all those weapons, which are quite similar, in different bands.

Mr Kidd: In answer to your final point, Mr Poots, under existing firearms law, if people apply to change up for certain firearms, they are subject to an additional supervisory requirement. It is simply not the case that, once you have a firearms licence, you have a free entitlement to shoot anything from an air rifle to a deer rifle; there are supervisory requirements. At present, the Chief Constable sees that there is a difference between calibres of firearm.

Mr Poots: Is the PSNI out of step with the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and everyone else in GB on the issue of young shooters? The ACPO chair of the firearms and explosives licensing working group suggested that a minimum age limit of 10, which also happens to be the age of criminal responsibility, be introduced across both types of licensing on the understanding that there would be a new legal requirement for all children to be supervised by an adult aged over 21 who is also a certificate holder. He also says:

"It is in the interests of safety that a young person who is to handle firearms should be properly taught at a relatively early age."

Those are the ACPO guidelines. I noted that, in the document sent to the Justice Committee, the Minister "feels". Are we going on expert evidence or the feelings of the Minister?

Mr Simon Rogers: The Chief Constable has advised the Minister, so he is going on the advice of the Chief Constable for a start.

Mr Poots: So the Chief Constable disagrees with ACPO.

Mr Simon Rogers: The Chief Constable's position is on record through our exchanges with the Committee and our published responses. One thing to come out from that is the need for safety and proper training, which is why the Minister says, for example, that they should be in an authorised environment, where they are subject to proper close-range supervision. Certainly, that is on all fours.

Mr Poots: Can we get back to the evidence as opposed to people's personal views or feelings? There are 42 constabularies in GB. Is there evidence of problems with the system that they are administering?

Mr Simon Rogers: I will answer that in two ways. First, there is no record of injuries. We do have a record of injuries, but, as I say, it is for all incidents. Secondly, in the Republic of Ireland, the minimum age is 14. We are not trying to pick and choose a jurisdiction. We have looked at people's views on the topic. Some do not want any change, and the majority of those who commented wanted the age of 12. Three groups went for age 11 on the grounds that it was secondary school age, although age 11 may not be secondary school age. Six groups wanted age 10, and two wanted none. Even the evidence from the consultees does not, therefore, favour the same situation as in England and Wales. The Minister felt, however, that there should be a proportionate move — a precautionary move, if you like — from age 16 to age 12, with an enabling provision allowing us to move further if there are no negative results.

Mr Poots: Is it not the case that a firearms dealer has to provide guidance on the handling of weapons when a weapon is sold in the first instance?

Mr Kidd: It is, but firearms dealers will often not have a facility to allow people to fire a live round. People will simply be shown the firearm and the basic operation but may never have discharged the firearm when they take it out of the shop.

Mr Simon Rogers: An issue has been raised with us about whether people should have to take a competence test before they can take a firearm. There are mixed views on that among the different groups.

Mr Poots: How many people were killed on the roads last year? I am not sure of the exact figure, but I think that it was around 80. How many people were killed in firearms incidents involving legally held firearms?

Mr Simon Rogers: That is a good record, which we want to keep. We want, therefore to take a precautionary approach. I think that it is worth noting —

Mr Poots: That is also the case in England, Wales and Scotland. When people are handling what they know to be a lethal weapon — it is a lethal weapon — they handle it with care and respect. The representative of all the GB constabularies says that the sooner that younger people can be trained in the handling of such lethal weaponry, the better, because they will learn to handle it with the appropriate respect. Mr Rogers and his team have not provided any evidence base whatsoever today. A lot of our current system goes back to the Troubles. Thank goodness they are behind us, and we are moving forward, but we have an archaic system that needs to be replaced. It appears to me that it is being replaced on the basis of feelings. He says that we have made considerable steps; I would say that you have made baby steps. Considerable changes are needed to these proposals.

Mr Elliott: Thanks for the presentation. I apologise for missing the first part. I will not go into the banded system in much detail. I asked a question on the age of shooters before — you raised it again today, Chair — and the experience in other areas where there is no minimum age. What is the current situation for rifle clubs? Is there an age limit there?

Mr Simon Rogers: There is no age limit in target-shooting clubs.

Mr Elliott: As I read it, the proposal relating to shotguns in clubs — I notice that it must be a registered club — is for the minimum age to be taken down to 12, but, for all other shotguns — for rough shooting or quarry — it is to remain at 18. For the purposes of clarification, is that right?

Mr Simon Rogers: One of the points made by shooters at the meeting on 23 February was that, at age 16, you can use your shotgun for sporting purposes and that there was a logic to extending that across all quarry. Although the Minister is waiting to hear other views, he is minded to accept that proposal, so that, from age 16, the gun would not be limited to game but could be used for any quarry. At the minute, it is not extended across all quarry, unless you are living on a farm and so on. The Minister, however, is minded to move on that.

Mr Elliott: However, it is not in this proposal.

Mr Simon Rogers: Not directly; it was discussed only on 23 February.

Mr Elliott: What concerns me, Chair, is that this is another issue may come into the proposals. Mr McGlone raised issues about the banded system; now we have suggested that there may be changes to the age. There is nothing here about fees. The document states that another workshop is planned at some stage. Can you enlighten us at all on where you are with that? Are you still at fee of £121, or are you coming close to the figure of £89 that you mentioned?

Mr Simon Rogers: We have tried to do this on a rigorous basis by bringing in DFP's business consultancy service (BCS), which looks at how much it costs to move a piece of paper or send an email. At the workshop, a number of issues were raised, such as why mileage seems to be counted twice, why a firearms enquiry officer (FEO) calls twice and so on. The BCS has gone out and sat with a number of FEOs and looked at exactly what they are doing with a view to reducing the cost if we can. We are looking at a number of issues to do with mileage and so on. It is my expectation, therefore, that we will reduce the fee, but we do not yet have the report, and one report from the FEO feeds into the whole report on the fees at large. We are expecting that within a couple of weeks. We then need to take that back to the stakeholders who raised the issues in the first place to see whether it answers the points, after which we will bring it back to the Committee. I do not know what it will be, but we have sent the team off with a view to trying to identify any surplus costs that could be taken out. The costs do not include enforcement or security issues and so on.

Mr Elliott: It annoys me slightly that, many months ago, we felt that efficiencies could be found in the system and that, at that stage, the Department said, "Absolutely not". It now appears that it can find efficiencies. How long will this go on for? I know that clubs in particular are keen to get their younger shooters more experienced at an early stage so that they can compete on the world stage. We are back here today, but we do not have anything concrete on the fees, and there are still issues about banding. We are probably getting closer on age brackets, but we need to try to draw this to a conclusion.

Finally, how much, if any, of this requires primary legislation?

Mr Simon Rogers: Most of the fees are in secondary legislation. A couple of new fees were proposed, so they need primary legislation. Young shooters will need primary legislation, and, because it is moving decisions out from the Chief Constable, any change in the banding would also require primary legislation. So, apart from the fee categories that already exist in primary legislation, all the others would require it.

Mr Elliott: It will be a long process. Do you have any time frame in mind?

Mr Simon Rogers: The reality is that, until we can settle the policy, we cannot go near parliamentary counsel or identify a Bill. You need settled policy first, and then you find a legislative slot. We are keeping our legislative programme team abreast of where we are at. If we have not resolved the issue in two or three months' time, we will not be looking at election — sorry, legislation; Freudian slip — this side of the election. None of us wants to be in that situation. I know that the Committee has invested a lot in this. We have invested a lot as well, as have stakeholders. I would rather see 95% of something come from this than 100% of nothing, and I have said that to the shooting stakeholders. I have said, "At the minute, we are at loggerheads and are achieving nothing. Is there not some way of us coming together and moving on on this issue for our mutual benefit?"

Mr Elliott: I agree that 95% is probably better than nothing. It depends what the 95% is. Chair, maybe you can try to impress the need to find final resolutions and final proposals ASAP to progress it.

Mr Frew: I am not too sure about that answer. Are these all dependent on each other? Are the fees, the banded system and the minimum age codependent?

Mr Simon Rogers: In one sense, they are not, but, in another sense, the stakeholders are saying, "We want to know what the fee is before we agree to a banded system. We need to know how much a club authorisation would be". In that sense, they are codependent. Could we legislate for fees next week? Yes, we could start the process on secondary legislation on fees, so, in another sense, they are not dependent on each other. Most people are saying to us that they want it all on the table before they give a final view, which is not unreasonable. I am being slightly careful about how I put this, because some people are saying that that is us holding them to hostage. It is not; it is them saying to us that they want to see the whole package. It is not us saying that we could not possibly move on bands unless we get the fees sorted out. It works both ways.

Mr Frew: If the Department was trying to stall on one aspect, you could understand where you could dig a heel in on some other aspect, which would then delay the whole process. The mechanics of government and legislation mean that you could go forward, but, given the practicalities and what it looks like on the ground, you can understand why you would want it all done and why the shooters would want it all in together. I know that all aspects have been rumbling on for years and years, maybe since before 2011. When I talk to my constituents, the clubs, the bodies that represent the clubs and shooters and the firearms dealers, my experience is that the Department, and more so the PSNI, has shown no human face and has turned away. Whilst we can all engage, there has been no meaningful engagement to try to get a resolution on the issues, especially from the PSNI, which seems to have prevaricated. Every time that people came to politicians for help and representation, the police shied away. The police do not want political interference at any stage, in any way or in any guise, even if it is just us representing our people. How do you counter that? In my experience, there has been a lack of meaningful engagement very much from the PSNI but also from the Department.

Mr Simon Rogers: As far as I am aware, we have never turned down a request for a meeting. We have had engagement meetings. The minutes of the workshops were provided. I think that we have had meaningful engagement.

Mr Frew: You can meet anybody you want and can sit there, listen and take notes, but you may not act on anything.

Mr Simon Rogers: First, at the meeting on 23 February, every single person in the room was in broad agreement with the proposals on the table. Secondly, on the banded system, we could have stuck by our guns and said, "No, the Chief Constable should be dealing with that because, for good reason, he is responsible in statute ". We have moved on that to a situation whereby we are putting it to dealers. It is an unfair accusation to say that we will not engage or will not listen. It is not unreasonable to say that this is taking a long time; we accept that. Some of it is quite complicated, and some of it coincides with other urgent and important work that we are doing, so we have to prioritise it. We are trying to push it through to a conclusion.

Mr Frew: You could understand a banded system that is left mostly in the hands of the firearms dealers, because you will be aware of how long the PSNI takes to do anything on firearm certificates and everything related to that. Do you think that the length of time that the PSNI has taken is acceptable?

Mr Simon Rogers: The fast-track system that we proposed had an undertaking that the police would take five working days. I do not think that that is unreasonable. The police are under more pressure now in the firearms and explosives branch (FEB) because of resource issues. All areas of policing are under pressure, and staff are being taken out. I do not think that it is a fair charge that the police are taking forever to turn these round. They offered a system whereby it was going to be five days.

Mr Frew: Whilst you do not think that it is unreasonable, do you think that it is achievable? I am yet to be convinced that the PSNI could turn these things round in five days.

Mr Simon Rogers: We did not put that proposal forward without talking in detail to the police about that very point. We have made the point to them that there is a need, as we move forward, for the police to be more open about timescales. As part of my responsibility, Access NI publishes its turnaround times, warts and all sometimes. We are saying to the police that, as part of this, if the public are paying for the service, you need


targets and so on. They accept that, but we are not quite at the point at which we are funding them to be able to provide the efficient service.

Mr Frew: What happens if the system is put in place, and we find in practice that they consistently fail to deliver on that time commitment?

Mr Simon Rogers: I am planning for success hopefully, but, if that happens, there are accountability mechanisms such as the Policing Board.

Mr Frew: You must be joking — you really must be joking. The system that is in place is totally inadequate and not fit for purpose in any shape or form. There is no denying that what you are presenting to us today is better, but it is still not there because there are no guarantees that one of the major stakeholders — the PSNI — will deliver for once in this area. The Department can have the best will in the world, but, unless it drags the PSNI, kicking and screaming, and there is a will to perform to the highest degree, we are letting down constituents, shooters, firearms dealers — the people for whom this is a business.

Mr Simon Rogers: The irony in that comment is that I think that the police are performing a good task. However, I do not think that they are selling it. They are not putting it in the public domain, and they should be. I am not saying that things go through quickly in every case. A chief superintendent has been in front of the Committee explaining that there are cases in which difficult information has to be looked at. I think that the police want to provide a good service, and I think that they do so in the vast bulk of cases, but they are maybe not showing that. That is one of the reasons why the Department is saying that it needs more transparency about turnaround times. If the public are paying the cost of the service, the police need to account to the public for the service they are providing. The police accept that.

Mr Frew: What are the police saying about turnaround times?

Mr Kidd: My understanding is that the latest figure for police turnaround times for a typical variation grant or re-grant, which is from around Christmas, is 80% within 10 working days.

Mr Frew: The big issue then is the 20%. How long do they have to wait? I imagine that it is a lot longer than 10 working days.

Mr Kidd: The issue there is the circumstances. Obviously, no two applications are identical.

Mr Frew: Yes, but not all of the 20% of the population who are applying for this will be people who cannot get —

Mr Kidd: I am not alleging or suggesting that they are intelligence cases or have security implications. It could be the case that a medical declaration has changed, so they have to go for GP reports. Those things will impact police turnaround times and statistics.

Mr Frew: They can do 80% in 10 days. How are they going to get that massive percentage down?

Mr Kidd: There is an undertaking in the fast-track system that we proposed. To keep the system simple and straightforward, we said that the fast-track system will operate when certain terms and conditions apply. We were saying, "This is where it is a straightforward variation. There is no change in medical circumstances, and there is no criminal record being disclosed, so you have a clean record".

Mr Frew: What percentage do you reckon that to be? It is bound to be less than 80%.

Mr Kidd: I honestly could not hazard a guess. The undertaking from the PSNI was that, for that simple variation process, they would turn them around within five days.

Mr Frew: You are talking about a very small percentage of applications.

Mr Kidd: I expect that the majority of those applications would fit within those criteria.

Mr Frew: The 80%.

Mr Simon Rogers: I think that we are talking about two different things. Robert is talking about the not-tabled fast-track system, and I think that you are talking about the system more generally.

Mr Frew: Excuse my ignorance: I am not completely aware of it, and I do not have the same expertise as you. I apologise for that. It could be the case that we are talking about two different things.

Mr Kidd: I am sorry if I confused things. The earlier fast-track system that was proposed guaranteed a turnaround time when it was a simple and straightforward transaction. It was for non-complex cases that did not involve the need for medical referees, GP references and so on.

Mr Frew: That is what they were putting out.

Mr Kidd: That would have been the eligibility criteria, if I can call it that, for the fast-track system. Otherwise, it would be the standard variation system.

Mr Frew: What were they producing in the fast-track system? What were they coming out with? How many working days?

Mr Kidd: They would basically change your firearm within five working days.

Mr Frew: That is what they are saying that they can achieve now, but for what percentage of applications?

Mr Kidd: The 80% figure that I quoted is for all applications. They do not separate out the —

Mr Frew: However, they only do that in 10 days. Now they are saying they can do it in five days.

Mr Simon Rogers: The category that is covered by the fast-track system is very narrow.

Mr Kidd: It is a subset.

Mr Simon Rogers: It is a subset, and it is the most straightforward cases. You have already got a firearm, so you should have good reason etc, and you are changing for another firearm. It would not include significant changes between firearm targets, etc. It is a slightly different category.

Mr Frew: OK. I will have to read up more on that. Apologies for my ignorance.

Again, this is something that I am not sure of, and that is the bands. Mr Poots alluded to the calibres earlier. Am I missing it? There is no 9 mm weaponry in this.

Mr Kidd: Handguns are excluded.

Mr Frew: Why? Is there a rationale for that?

Mr Kidd: The original guidance, which set out the initial table on which the police make decisions, is based on quarry. Quarry is obviously rifles for hunting and vermin.

Mr Frew: It is then for the quarry and not for the sporting side of things.

Mr Kidd: It is not for target pistol or dual-conditioned weapons.

Mr Frew: OK. Finally, can I go on —

The Chairperson (Mr Ross): Very finally, Paul.

Mr Frew: I want to go on to the age, as it is very important. Again, it is the aspect of sport, hobby or whatever. When you look at the UK, you see that we are at a disadvantage when it comes to our young sportspeople and the levels of success that they have had over in GB. I want to use sensible language here. The Minister thinks secondary-school age. Whilst you go down the road of thinking that there has to be an age or no age, why, if you think that there has to be an age, is it at 12 years? To me, it is not necessarily about the person who has the weapon in their hand; it is about the supervision that they get when they are holding that weapon. Is that not more important than any age or date of birth of the holder?

Mr Simon Rogers: I take you back again. People suggested a range of ages. The Chief Constable was content with age 12; eight of the groups that were consulted said age 12; three said age 11, and they thought that was secondary-school age, as far as I can recall; and six said age 10. There are different views on what the age should be. The Minister wants to take a precautionary approach to this. He said that he will review it, and, with the agreement of the Assembly and the Committee, he would put into the legislation a provision that would enable us to change the age if that was felt appropriate at a later stage.

Mr Frew: What safeguards are there for supervision, which, to me, is a more important issue?

Mr Simon Rogers: Because it would be in a regulated club, you have, in a sense, the best supervision, rather than a 12-year-old in a field with someone who has not had a great deal of experience supervising them, and how do you guarantee that their supervision is effective?

Mr Frew: We are only talking about target shooting here.

Mr Kidd: Shotgun use for clay target.

Mr Frew: So a young person aged 12 will not be able to shoot quarry.

Mr Kidd: No.

Mr Frew: Why then is it acceptable to have an age limit of 16 for that and 12 for target?

Mr Simon Rogers: Age 16 is already the age contained in the legislation that enables people to shoot quarry for sporting purposes, with supervision. The Minister said that, in light of the points made by a number of the stakeholders etc, he could understand moving 16 from fowl etc into the broader quarry, so all the quarry. We have not had all the comments back on the proposals, but he said earlier to Mr Elliott that he was minded to move in that direction. To answer your question directly: 16 is an age that is already a point in the legislation that exists.

Mr Lynch: My question has been answered. It was about the fees.

Mr McCartney: I have two brief points. When Tom was speaking, we had reference to 95% and 100%. Can that be presented to us in a paper so that we can see what the gaps are?

Mr Simon Rogers: Really the point that I am making is that the Minister has moved on a lot of issues to try to accommodate people. We still have not bridged the gap. The gap would need to be bridged by moving to possibly 10. He has moved some distance on bands. I was trying to make the point that we all need to move perhaps. The Minister, for example, is saying that he is prepared to look at 16. He has said that he is prepared to look at the bands being in the hands of dealers in restricted circumstances. My point is that if we cannot reach some level of agreement on this issue, it will go nowhere. That is not a threat; it is a statement of fact, and I would be more frustrated than anyone.

Mr McCartney: Obviously, an update on the fees will assist us.

Mr Simon Rogers: Yes.

Mr McCartney: I live in a city constituency and do not get many of the things through our office that some Members have raised. Quite recently, however, we had a case, and I did a bit of work with some of our people on the Policing Board. In a number of cases where people have appealed the decision, it has gone to court. Then, in the middle of the court case, the PSNI have pulled out, having relied on the intelligence test and the strength of intelligence, and the licence has been issued. It would be an interesting exercise to see the cost of that. It is difficult to test intelligence for understandable reasons at times. There are, nonetheless, instances where people challenge intelligence, it goes to court, and then the PSNI relent, and so there is expense. At the same time, we are having a wider discussion about the cost of legal aid. That type of case perhaps should not be happening. I would just like an indication of how many there are.

Mr Simon Rogers: Those cases are currently the responsibility of the Secretary of State, but we will certainly make sure that your comments are passed on to her officials.

Mr A Maginness: Thank you for your contribution to the Committee's deliberations. My question relates to the minimum age of a young shooter. The Minister is proposing 12, whereas the Countryside Alliance Ireland, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) and the Gun Trade Guild Northern Ireland are prepared to compromise. They were talking about 10, but they are prepared to compromise on 11. That seems to me to be a not unreasonable compromise for shotguns or air rifles. Further to that, they are suggesting that the shooting take place under the supervision of a person aged at least 25, with at least five years' experience of that type of firearm. That seems to me to be tightening the supervision, and as a non-practitioner or non-gunman — perhaps the only non-gunman around the table


— that element of supervision is vital, and tightening it is therefore a good thing. That argument comes from what I regard as the experts among the stakeholders.

Mr Simon Rogers: The point about supervision was one of the very constructive, positive things to come out of the workshop. For example, were the Minister looking at a move to 16 for all quarry, we would reflect that going forward. At the moment, that would not apply; it would be a much lower supervision threshold. The logic behind the move is that, obviously, at 25, after five years, you have been through one renewal of your firearm certificate, which is positive. Against that, you might renew your firearm certificate, but not use your firearm very often. There are shades of opinion on all these things, but we welcomed this. We think that it is a good, constructive suggestion, and, certainly, in looking at 16-year-olds, it is something we would —

Mr A Maginness: But it is indicative of a frame of mind. These people are serious about trying to compromise and move this issue forward; is that not right? Also, they talk about, instead of clay or paper targets, live quarry and vermin. Is the inclusion of vermin and live quarry not a reasonable suggestion?

Mr Simon Rogers: Our view is that 16 is a suitable age for that; and, of the groups we met on 23 February, most were content with the proposals, subject to fees and other things. They were content with the proposals that we put before them.

The Chairperson (Mr Ross): The three key stakeholders were not at the meeting on 23 February, is that not right?

Mr Simon Rogers: I would not call them "the" three key stakeholders; I would say "three of". The other organisations have 40-plus trade members and things. I am not trying to rank them; I am just saying that there were a number of important groups on 23 February. I said earlier that a number of important groups were not there, and that we would rather engage with them all; but I would not want to diminish the role of any of them.

Mr A Maginness: Or other people.

Mr Simon Rogers: Yes.

Mr A Maginness: It just seems to me that, even if they are a bit out of step with some of the other stakeholders, they are working towards a reasonable compromise. Just listening to the arguments around the table, I think that that is a very positive step.

Mr Kidd: Can I just come in there as well, Mr Maginness? We had an all-day workshop on 29 September — half a day on the banded system and the other half on young shooters. We had a very thought-provoking discussion. One of the issues discussed was supervising young people shooting live quarry over the fields and over rough ground. It was suggested by some of the stakeholders that, if you are supervising someone on a target range or on a clay-target club range, you stand very close to them, but over the fields, it is much more difficult to police, and, if the young person starts to wander off even five or ten metres from you, the question arises of whether you are still technically supervising them, because you cannot put your hand on their shoulder and say, "Hold on a minute; stop there." There are potential issues and concerns about the safety of the individual and of the wider public associated with young people shooting over the fields and rough ground.

Mr Frew: You could make it a standard operating procedure that that would be supervision and that it would be conducted safely.

Mr Poots: The quality of this evidence is so poor, Mr Chairman. It is hugely disappointing when people make bold statements without any evidence base whatsoever. I am afraid that we are not going to make much progress with the Department of Justice, if that is how they do things.

Mr Kidd: Sorry, Mr Poots, I am just quoting something that was said at the workshop by a stakeholder.

The Chairperson (Mr Ross): I suggest that there would not have been half


if everybody around the table here


Mr McGlone: There are a number of things that I want to pick up on, including that one. You could equally flip that argument around and say that there are numerous people on a target range, rather than no one else on an open field. You can flip the argument whichever way you want.

I will get down to the issues of engagement raised by Mr Dickson. Maybe he was not aware that those organisations that were not there last Friday — I am sure that you would be the first to accept this — have engaged fully with the Department on numerous occasions. I hope that it was not a tick-box exercise. I could have been there too, but I looked at the proposal and decided that it was a waste of time to take a day to go up there and look at something that is miniscule.

You mentioned the flexible nature of the proposed regime. It has to be set in context. In GB, if you get a shotgun certificate, you can have any number of shotguns; that is not a firearms certificate. The practicalities of working with the firearms certificate are that you establish the need for it, it is sent out to you and the details of the firearm are sent to the local constabulary within seven days. Just so that people are not working under a misconception — one of your stakeholders was clearly deer shooters, who will not necessarily be interested, unless there are other quarry-shooters at that banding. They are interested in either .243 or .308. That will be it; period; full stop.

I could take the issue you raised about ballistics, Mr Kidd, and turn it around. All of those bullets are .224, bar the .17 Remington and the .204. I can take the .204 and say that the .17 Remington is going out the barrel at 4,000-odd feet per second, and the .204 is going out at four and a half thousand feet per second. Yet the .22-250 is going out at about 2,700 feet per second. You can use whatever you like in this argument. At the end of the day, as Mr Poots correctly said, we need to see the report from CIFEx, and I presume that there is one. Yes? A written report?

Mr Kidd: Comments on the initial one came back through the PSNI.

Mr McGlone: Sorry, but there is a written report on both these banding systems from the PSNI, is there not?

Mr Kidd: There is something in writing, yes.

Mr McGlone: Is there a report from both of them on this proposed banded system and your proposed banded system? You have worked on evidence and research, I presume.

Mr Simon Rogers: We have had exchanges with CIFEx, which have led to those —

Mr McGlone: Sorry, Mr Rogers, with the greatest respect, an exchange could be a chat in a corridor or some detailed document of 20, 30, 40 or 100 pages. Which is it?

Mr Simon Rogers: I was trying to go on to say that we do not have a document of 20, 30, 40 or 100 pages. We have had exchanges with them, and we have had the listing banded system, and we have worked through it with them to look at how those might be applied in a new regime.

Mr McGlone: Is there research that supports that banding from CIFEx?

Mr Simon Rogers: There are exchanges with CIFEx —

Mr McGlone: That is not what I was asking you. Is there evidence-based research from CIFEx that supports your proposed banding?

Mr Simon Rogers: I am not sure what you mean by research.

Mr McGlone: Research means evidence that is grounded in fact and science.

Mr Simon Rogers: We had exchanges with CIFEx on the basis of what would be a safe set of bands to come up with. As we have been discussing earlier, you could cut the bands in different ways, so there is not a scientific way of doing it, but we wanted to have a set of bands that were safe, looking at them across the bands, using the original proposal but trimming it because of the difficulties


Mr McGlone: With the greatest respect, I find it unusual that you admit that there is not a scientific way of doing that. You are not saying that CIFEx has approached this in a non-scientific way, I hope.

Mr Simon Rogers: What I was trying to say was that there are different ways of looking at it. For example, one approach is to say that it is on the basis of the type of bullet, but that is not how it was done. It was done in a different way. We can give you details of our exchanges with CIFEx.

Mr McGlone: I think that we really need that because, to be honest with you, it is not really stacking up. With the greatest respect, you are trying to do your job under political direction, but it is not really stacking up. Thanks very much for that.

The Chairperson (Mr Ross): Thank you. I suspect that we will hear from you on the issue again.

Mr Poots: With some evidence the next time.

Find Your MLA


Locate your local MLA.

Find MLA

News and Media Centre


Read press releases, watch live and archived video

Find out more

Follow the Assembly


Keep up to date with what’s happening at the Assem

Find out more



Enter your email address to keep up to date.

Sign up