Worth the wait

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It’s taken eight years for a new form to be issued that will simplify the firearm and shotgun licence application process. Helena Douglas asks how this will fit into the new eCommerce for Policing initiative.

From 1 December 2013 shotgun and firearm licence applicants will be able to use a new simplified form to apply for their certificates. The announcement by the government’s Office of Public Sector Information was made after eight years of consultation between the Home Office, the police and BASC.

As a result, the Firearms (Amendment) Rules 2013 specify a new application form entitled “Application for the grant or renewal of a firearm and/or shotgun certificate” that replaces the existing separate application and renewal forms for firearm and shotgun certificates.

In addition, a new form for variation of a firearm certificate has also been introduced. The requirements around ammunition have also been simplified, with it no longer being mandatory to declare how much ammunition can be bought, only how much can be possessed. Along with the new single form there will also be a non-compulsory ‘equality information’ page that need only be completed if the applicant wishes to do so.

Further benefits of the new forms include the removal of the requirement for a professionally qualified countersignatory. Instead of applicants having to ask an MP, doctor, or suchlike to sign their shotgun certificate, they will instead be able to use a suitable person who has known them for over two years. However, that person may not be a family member, a Registered Firearms Dealer or a police employee.

Pic04_537907_94341228Fieldsports organisations and the police have welcomed the new forms. Mike Eveleigh, senior firearms officer at BASC, says: “As most shooters know, BASC keeps records of the problems our members report. For the past 15 years the one at the top of the heap every year was the forms, which are irritating for both the public and for the police, as they don’t give the information the police want. The new forms, while not perfect, will make things better. For example, coterminous renewal currently takes four forms with much of the information being repeated time and again. From 1 December 2013 it will take just one. We’ve also got rid of the extra forms for referees and the requirement to have a minister, doctor, dentist or teacher is going. We welcome the move, as it turns the form into a communications medium rather than a means of obfuscation.”

Adrian Blackmore, director of shooting at the Countryside Alliance, agrees that the new forms are a considerable improvement. “The government and police are to be commended for the work they have done, in collaboration with the shooting community, in making these changes. The Countryside Alliance looks forward to continuing to work with them in modernising and updating firearms licensing practice and guidance to both improve efficiency and reduce unnecessary costs in the current process, while continuing to ensure there is no compromise on public safety.”

The big questions, of course, are why it has taken eight years for the new forms to be agreed upon and whether they will make any difference to the often inconsistent and bureaucratic procedures within police firearms licensing departments. Mike Eveleigh points to the delay being caused by lack of action within the Home Office. “About eight years ago BASC approached the Home Office with the police and a working group was formed, of which I was a part. But frankly every time we went to the Home Office to discuss things nothing then happened, although in the past few months things did improve.”

Andy Marsh, chief constable of Hampshire Constabulary and chair of the Association of Chief Police Officers Firearms & Explosive Licensing Working Group (FELWG), expands on this. “The new forms are great progress for the shooting community, progress for  the police and a step towards a more customer-faced licensing service. However, it is incredibly disappointing that it’s taken eight years to do something as simple as this. The progress on changes to the licensing process and legislation seems to be based on a triangulation of dialogue between the Home Office, the various sporting shooting groups and the police, and unsurprisingly all three parties are never going to absolutely agree. It is also true that if you wait for absolute consensus before you make progress, then you can’t be surprised if nothing happens.”

Pic02_centrefire cartridges stock xchngIt is a moot point as to whether the new forms will result in an improved service. BASC’s Mike Eveleigh doubts that this is a step in the many steps needed to further reform firearms licensing and law. “While new forms will eventually improve the lot of both the applicant and the police there will be confusion initially because people are used to the old forms. The next step is for the police move to eCommerce, with the whole thing being put online but retaining paper forms for people who don’t have internet access.”

Chief constable Andy Marsh is actively involved with the introduction of the new eCommerce for Policing initiative, a part of the Cabinet Office’s Digital by Default strategy. Aimed at ensuring the police give the levels of service the public receive from companies like Amazon and Marks & Spencer, the first police business process to be supported by the initiative is firearms and explosives licensing, which will eventually be fully automated. Once a customer has placed their ‘order’, the system will automatically validate their data against other intelligence systems, process payments, and is expected to reduce the amount of time taken for customer requests to be fulfilled.

“We will be going live with our first pilot force at the end of this year or very early next year,” Marsh explains. “Five forces will be piloted, followed by more than 20 others in the first wave. But the new forms are still relevant, as we won’t be compelling the fee-paying public to use the online facilities if they prefer to use paper forms. We will always retain the ability to make a paper application.”

Under the new online process, the same ‘form’ will be completed online – with the same fields being populated. “The benefit will be cost savings as information won’t have to be keyed in at the police station, the fast processing of payments, and the ability of the applicant to book an appointment online, track progress online and access a service that meets their needs.”

This all sounds very promising, but however slick the online processes are, they will still need to be backed up by efficiency improvements within firearms licensing departments themselves. As Peter Glenser, a specialist firearms barrister at 9 Bedford Row, notes: “The new forms are to be welcomed for simplifying the procedure, but improvements in service are of course not guaranteed.

“The online system will make it easier for the applicant and hopefully cheaper to process as well, and all forces should sign up to eCommerce.

“In addition, there should be a national standard for licensing officers and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabularies should reinstate Thematic Inspections of licensing.”

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