Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by The Police Service of Northern Ireland

INTRODUCTION

  In terms of the Chief Constable's legislative functions and powers concerning the grant of Firearm Certificates within Northern Ireland, this submission is forwarded for consideration by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. In line with the Committee's terms of reference, it highlights from the police perspective any significant differences between firearms licensing legislation in Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Inadequacies with the current legislation and the scope to address these are also explored along with other general related issues.

BACKGROUND

  The principal firearms legislation applicable to Northern Ireland is the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 (hereafter referred to as the 1981 Order). In the remainder of the United Kingdom the primary firearm legislation is the Firearms Act 1968, (hereafter referred to as the 1968 Act).

  The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) has recently consulted the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) during their detailed review of the 1981 Order. The objective of PSNI during this review has been to ensure that the Chief Constable maintains an appropriate and effective control over the legitimate provision and use of firearms in order to promote and enhance public safety. While the Chief Constable has welcomed the content of this review, responsibility for introducing final proposals for legislative change rests with the NIO. It is assumed that in their submission to the Committee the Northern Ireland Office will provide detail of this review.

  Attached as an Annex is a breakdown of the total number of Northern Ireland Firearm Certificates on issue at the 31 March 2002. In addition a further breakdown is shown of the distribution of personal protection weapons.

SIGNIFICANT LEGISLATIVE DIFFERENCES WITH GREAT BRITAIN

  Although the origins of the 1968 Act and the 1981 Order are to be found in the Firearms Act 1920 a number of significant differences have developed between both sets of legislation of which the Committee will be aware. The following paragraphs highlight those areas of divergence that impact upon the Chief Constable's statutory functions in relation to his legislative duty to grant Firearm Certificates whilst ensuring public safety.

Referees

  In Great Britain, the Firearms Rules 1998 requires applicants to provide two named persons of good character, known to the applicant for at least two years, to act as referees to the applicant. It is the role of the referee to offer advice to the police on the applicant's fitness to possess firearms, although the final judgement as to whether or not the applicant is a fit person to be entrusted with a firearm rests with the police.

  No similar provision is contained in the Northern Ireland 1981 Order. It is the view of the Chief Constable that the introduction of a similar provision would prove beneficial to his decision-making processes and enhance public safety.

Medical Information

  The Firearms Rules 1998 requires the applicant to give permission to the Chief Officer of Police in order that they may directly approach the applicant's General Practitioner in order to obtain factual details of the applicant's medical history.

  While the Firearms (Prescribed Forms) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1995 do not replicate this procedure, applicants are nonetheless required to provide details of any medical condition. Upon receipt of medical information that may give rise to concern as to the applicant's fitness to possess a firearm, PSNI will, through the applicant, request factual information on the medical condition from the applicant's General Practitioner.

  This current Northern Ireland practice whereby the police may not elicit medical information directly from an applicant's General Practitioner, is viewed by the Chief Constable as unsatisfactory. Normally it is the applicant who will forward the General Practitioner's correspondence to PSNI's Firearms Licensing Department.

  It is the Chief Constable's contention that the introduction of a similar provision as contained in the Firearms Rules 1998, would eradicate any potential conflict of interest between the General Practitioner and the applicant, to the benefit of both the Chief Constable's decision-making process and the enhancement of public safety.

Eligibility of Applicant

  Section 26 of the 1968 Act requires an application to be made to the "chief officer of police for the area in which the applicant resides". This is in contrast to Article 28 of the 1981 Order, which is less prescriptive and requires the applicant to be "resident in the United Kingdom, or who is resident in a country outside the United Kingdom and has elected to have this paragraph apply to him..."

  The Chief Constable has a number of reservations regarding the outworking of this aspect of the 1981 Order. Firstly, in relation to applicants who are either non-resident in Northern Ireland or who reside outside the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom, it is problematic to conduct the enquiries necessary in order that the Chief Constable may be satisfied as to the fitness of an applicant (as required by Article 28 of the 1981 Order).

  Secondly, Article 28(4) of the 1981 Order may disadvantage citizens of the Republic of Ireland who are in possession of Firearm certificates issued in that jurisdiction and who require use of a firearm for vermin control on farmland owned by them which straddles the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

  Article 28 of the 1981 Order, which permits residents of Great Britain to apply for a Northern Ireland Firearm Certificate, may be used to circumvent the provisions of the 1968 Act. It may also negate the requirement of holders of GB Firearm Certificates or Shotgun Permits to seek and comply with the conditions of a Certificate of Approval issued by virtue of Article 15 of the 1981 Order and the Firearms (Prescribed Forms) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1985.

  It is the Chief Constable's view that he should consider applications for firearm certificates only from residents of Northern Ireland and the owners of farmland whose holdings straddle the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Grant of Firearm Certificate

  Article 28 of the 1981 Order provides the Chief Constable with discretionary power to grant a firearm certificate and requires the applicant to show "good reason" in respect of all firearms sought. In Great Britain the Chief Officer of Police "...shall grant..." a Firearm Certificate but the 1968 Act does not require the applicant to show good reason for possession of certain categories of firearms including shotguns.

  It is the view of the Chief Constable that the legislative position in Northern Ireland provides better control and is more conducive to public safety.

Possession of Handguns

  One of the most significant differences between the two jurisdictions is the prohibition on the private ownership of handguns applicable only in Great Britain. Mindful of Lord Cullen's report following the aftermath of the fatal shootings at Dunblane Primary School in 1996, the Chief Constable believes the question of a similar ban being introduced into Northern Ireland should remain subject to periodic policy review by the Secretary of State.

  In the absence of a ban on the private possession of handguns Northern Ireland is also unique in that the Chief Constable may, in exceptional circumstances, permit private possession of handguns for the purpose of an individuals personal protection. Applicants seeking firearms for another's protection, or that of premises or other property is refused.

  The Chief Constable's policy of permitting possession of handguns for personal protection arises as a direct result of the troubled history of this Province. This policy is subject to periodic review based upon an assessment of the prevailing security situation and the Chief Constable's obligations to comply with the Human Rights Act 1998 and Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

  It is the Chief Constable's assessment that while the security situation has improved, it has not yet progressed to the stage whereby Firearm Certificates permitting possession of such weapons for personal protection may be safely withdrawn.

SHORTCOMINGS IN CURRENT NORTHERN IRELAND LEGISLATION

Competence in the use of Firearms

  Prior to being satisfied whether or not possession of a firearm by an applicant would endanger public safety (within the meaning of Article 28 of the 1981 Order), the Chief Constable is unable to routinely determine if the applicant would be competent in the use of a firearm should the application be granted. There are two exceptions to this supposition. The first concerns applications for target weapons when the applicant is required to produce a letter of support from an official of his or her firearm club. The second concerns applications for a rifle for the purpose of deer stalking. In such matters the Chief Constable will require the applicant to produce a certificate showing that the applicant has successfully passed a validated deer management course prior to the grant of a Firearm Certificate.

  During the course of the review of the 1981 Order by the NIO, the Chief Constable has welcomed proposals to introduce measures thereby ensuring that persons inexperienced in the use and handling of firearms are competent in their use. The Chief Constable holds that such a requirement would be conducive to public safety. It is the view of the Chief Constable that the need to show competence should be underpinned by legislation. Such provision would enable the Chief Constable to condition Firearm Certificates granted to inexperienced shooters to use firearms initially only under the supervision of a suitably experienced Firearm Certificate holder.

Appeals

  If the Chief Constable refuses to grant or revokes a Firearm Certificate the current 1981 Order permits a person aggrieved by the decision of the Chief Constable to appeal to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. It is the view of the Chief Constable that openness and transparency would be improved if such appeals were heard by the Courts.

Delegation of Chief Constable's Functions

  Article 59 of the 1981 Order allows the Chief Constable to direct in writing that such of his functions under this Order as are specified in the direction may be exercised by such other police officers as specified in the direction. With finite resources and increasing demands on the Police Service, there is a clear need to optimise the use of these resources. It is the view of the Chief Constable that his power of delegation should be extended to his civilian support staff. Introduction of such a measure would release valuable police resources for operational duties.

MISCELLANEOUS MATTERS

Guidance to the Police

  In December 2001 the Home Office published its Guidance to the Police on Firearms Law. While this Guidance document is not applicable in Northern Ireland the Chief Constable recognises the value of the Home Office Guidance, produced following careful research and extensive consultation with Chief Officer colleagues in Great Britain. In the absence of any other specific NI guidance, the Chief Constable has commenced an evaluation of the Home Office directive in order to determine whether the adoption of its principles (insofar as compatible with Northern Ireland legislation) would be beneficial in terms of best practice, openness and transparency.

Firearms Licensing Branch

  Following publication of the report by the Independent Commission on Policing in Northern Ireland, the Chief Constable has commissioned a project to modernise the current business processes of his Firearms Licensing Branch. Underpinned by an upgrade in the supporting information technology, the core objectives of this exercise are the delivery of a high quality of service to the public, through the most efficient and cost effective process.

  Work has commenced on this project and the appointment of private sector consultants to assist is now imminent. The views of shooting associations and representatives of firearm dealers have been canvassed as part of the research for this project, and visits are underway to several Firearms Licensing Departments in Great Britain to identify good practice.

CONCLUSION

  Against the turbulent background of terrorist campaigns and public disorder over the recent decades, the provisions of the Firearms (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 have provided the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland with adequate safeguards and controls. The overriding priority of the Police naturally has and will continue to be that of public safety. To this end and the firearms licensing regime was arguably more stringent in Northern Ireland than in the remainder of the United Kingdom. It is recognised however, that as we progress towards "normalisation", the Police must continue to carefully balance the overarching need for general public safety with the reasonable expectations of firearm holders. As with the public service as a whole, underlying this approach is also the need for greater accountability and transparency in our decision making process.

  It is against this complex backdrop that any new firearms legislation within Northern Ireland must be framed so as to ensure the Chief Constable is fully supported and empowered to effectively discharge his duties and responsibilities to both legitimate users of firearms and the wider public.



 
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