Minister for Policing, Brandon Lewis MP writes:
The countryside is Britain’s most treasured natural asset – many of us work, live and enjoy it every day of the year.
So when I joined the Home Office last summer as Minister for Policing and the Fire Service, I was delighted to have the chance to help steer through Parliament a Bill, now the Policing and Crime Act, which contained measures that will deliver real benefits to rural communities.
In this Government’s manifesto, we said we would protect hunting, shooting and fishing because of the contribution they make to individuals, the environment and the rural economy, and we are delivering on this. Democratically elected Police and Crime Commissioners have already given local communities a powerful voice in determining how policing resources are allocated to help tackle rural crime. And now the Policing and Crime Act is going a considerable way to making firearms licensing simpler, clearer and more consistent for both the shooting community and our partners in law enforcement.
Before I go on, though, I want to stress how vital it is – and I know the lawful shooting community understands this – that we maintain our robust and effective gun laws, because having some of the toughest controls in the world keeps our communities safe. Governments must preserve public safety. Our strict firearms laws give us a huge advantage over criminals seeking to use guns to support their activities. Since 2010, crimes traditionally measured by the Crime Survey for England and Wales have fallen by a third and this Act balances the necessarily rigorous expectations that our firearms laws set with real-life practicalities for the shooting community.
One clear example arises from the rules around expanding ammunition for rifles, which is legally required when hunting deer, something I know the Countryside Alliance were keen to see changed. Until now, the police have had to add conditions on a firearm certificate for the possession of expanding ammunition, but this creates additional administration. The Act will simplify the licensing process and saves precious resources for the police so that it will no longer be a requirement to have those additional conditions added to a certificate or permit when this provision commences in late spring.
We also fully recognised that the current provisions in the Firearms Act, which allow for the borrowing of rifles and shotguns on private premises, needed to be updated. From the spring, the change in regulations brought in under the Act will allow a person to borrow a firearm not only from the owner or occupier and to use it in their presence, but also from a certificate holder who is on the premises and has been authorised by the owner or occupier to lend their weapon for use in the same way.
We have also used the Act to bring greater clarity to the definitions in our firearms licensing legislation. Following a report from the Law Commission in 2015, the Act is allowing us to define exactly what counts as an antique firearm, meaning any uncertainty among law enforcement agencies and legitimate collectors about the classification and licensing of these old and historic firearms will end. We will now set out a list of which type of firearms, their cartridges and their ignition systems, are designated as antique – something which we will consult on publicly in the coming months.
Bringing this level of clarity and consistency benefits firearms owners and collectors as well as law enforcement. Crime data shows that the lack of clarity, for instance around antiques firearms, could be a factor in criminals accessing firearms. We need to stop that to keep Britain safe and also to make sure legitimate owners and law-abiding licence holders can continue, unhindered, with their lawful activities.
I want to highlight one final change, which I know the Countryside Alliance was also keen to see following a number of public order disturbances where individuals used face coverings to conceal their identity. In the midst of a violent protest or public order incident, it was not always possible for officers to get the written authorisation required to order someone to remove a face covering. The Act changes this and allows verbal authorisation in such situations, with written authorisation confirmed later. This is a pragmatic, common-sense solution that will give police greater flexibility to deal with criminal behaviour while maintaining important safeguards.
With the Policing and Crime Act now taking effect, it is satisfying to know that many of the measures being brought in will bring real benefits to countryside communities. We must continue to do all we can to reduce crime in this country, especially around the misuse of firearms. We will also do whatever we can to support everyone who lives, works and enjoys the countryside.