Taxpayer subsidising cost of legal firearm licensing, says watchdog

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The taxpayer subsidised the cost of legal firearms licensing in Northern Ireland by more than a quarter of a million pounds last year, a watchdog said.

The bill was close to a million pounds over the last three years but there was no clear plan to achieve full cost recovery from applicants in the foreseeable future, comptroller and auditor general Kieran Donnelly added.

The PSNI is responsible for managing the firearms licensing regime in Northern Ireland, with day-to-day decisions administered by Chief Constable George Hamilton through the force’s Firearms and Explosives Branch (FEB).

Mr Donnelly said: “The introduction of online applications for firearms licences has lessons for all public bodies as they seek innovation in how they deliver services.

“It is not enough to innovate: they must be able to demonstrate improved service delivery to stakeholders and citizens.”

The Audit Office said full cost recovery should be achieved for the service provided.

It costs £1.6 million annually yet recovers only £1.3 million in fees from applicants.

The Audit Office commented: “In effect, there is a public subsidy for firearms licensing (£267,000 in 2017-18).

“There is no clear plan to achieve full cost recovery in the foreseeable future.”

SDLP Stormont Assembly Member John Dallat said in the last three years the public purse has subsidised the Firearms and Explosives Branch of the PSNI by £880,000, money better channelled into services like health and education.

He added: “With over 57,000 firearm holders, as well as a number of dealers, target clubs and clay clubs, it seems reasonable that a full recovery of costs is not unreasonable and should be achieved as quickly as possible.

“In other words, gun licensing should be self-financing.”

Mr Donnelly said there had been significant backlogs in applications.

In February 2018 there were 2,485 applications waiting for processing to commence, which had been received on or after December 15 2017. The backlog was largely cleared by July 2018.

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) contended that delays have led to situations where licence holders who had submitted applications found themselves outside the law as their licence expired.

The Chief Constable can and does exercise his lawful discretion to suspend recovery of firearms and has introduced a “holding letter” for applicants in this situation.

The PSNI views this as entirely legal and a pragmatic solution to the benefit of licence-holders, the Audit Office said.

Head of the police FEB Nichola Murphy accepted three recommendations contained within the report.

She added: “Work is ongoing within the Firearms and Explosives Branch to address the two recommendations on performance reporting and on assessing the benefits of the online application process.

“The third recommendation on full cost recovery will require further consideration and discussion with a range of key stakeholders.”

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