The Home Office announced earlier this week that firearm and shotgun certificate fees are to be increased, as the shooting world widely expected – yet within 12 months we could be facing another large fee hike.
Along with all the publicity about new raised firearms fees coming into force from 6th April, hidden in the detail of the government response to last year’s public consultation was this line:
The Government is clear that alongside the increase processes must be put in place to ensure there is a regular review of the firearms licensing fees.
This was followed by a more alarming suggestion:
The majority of respondents suggested that future reviews should be in line with inflation. However the Government guidance on setting fees is clear that fees should be set to recover the full cost associated with providing the service to ensure that the government neither profits at the expense of consumers nor makes a loss for taxpayers to subsidise. Simply increasing fees by inflation is unlikely to achieve this…
The document’s authors do note that costs could, in theory, decrease, pointing out that contractual changes could be one reason for costs to decrease. But it gets worse:
We will then consider conducting a more comprehensive review after five years . This will look at the processes and wider framework and a decision will be taken whether the proposals from this review should go out for public consultation.
The official government announcement of the fee hike had this quote from Lynne Featherstone, the Lib Dem minister in charge of policing and firearms licensing matters:
The Government will work with police to introduce an online licensing system which will be reviewed in twelve months to assess whether costs are being fully recovered, with a view to increasing fees further if they are not.
So, in summary:
- The government is increasing fees for all types of certificate from 6th April
- It is actively trying to find a way of imposing an annual above-inflation fee increase on top of that
- There will be a “review” in a year’s time from now aimed at jacking fees up even further from the 6th April level
- In five years’ time there will be a “comprehensive review” of fees with, presumably, the intent of raising them further again
The two major membership-led shooting organisations, BASC and the Countryside Alliance, both welcomed the latest fee increase. Neither seems to have publicly addressed the massive hidden hikes which the government wants to impose on us.
This week’s settlement on firearm and shotgun fees is not a true victory. While few would disagree that a rise in the cost of a certificate to cover the reasonable cost of administering the system is probably overdue after 13 years without a rise, we are now set for five years of escalating fees – and that’s not something to celebrate.
How – and why – lawful shooters are going to get shafted
Most worryingly, telegraphing the punch in this way gives ample warning to police forces looking to use firearms licensing as a cash cow to help stave off the impact of budget cuts. We have already seen this rent-seeking behaviour from the police in the recent past.
When ACPO, the private company which police chiefs use as a talking shop to decide what laws they will enforce, first decided it wanted to increase firearms fees two years ago, its representatives quietly went to the then policing minister, Conservative MP Damian Green, and asked him to bring it in. He rejected their overtures and told them the debate would be had in public through the approved channels. This was a major setback.
ACPO then falsely declared that FACs cost £196 each to issue and started attacking the shooting public, claiming that firearms licensing “cost” everyone £17m a year in “subsidy”. When the public reaction was to ask how on earth policemen had arrived at that figure when forces such as South Wales were able to issue a certificate for £68, ACPO went conspicuously quiet for a few months. They were losing the argument and it looked as if fees wouldn’t become a profitable revenue stream for police forces. Worst of all for the police, a Home Office Fees Working Group had been established which was going to audit their shonky maths (which we subsequently learned had no basis in reality) and destroy any hope of milking the cash cow.
Around this time (mid-2014) the Labour party began latching onto ACPO’s rhetoric about the “subsidy” for firearms licensing. The similarity in language and stated intent from two supposedly separate bodies was remarkable.
What the police needed was a means of breaking the fees impasse. Then ACPO hit upon a great idea – random spot checks. In conjunction with friendly civil servants at the Home Office, ACPO had the manual of gun licensing administration – the Home Office Guidance on Firearms Law – amended to permit unannounced visits to firearm certificate holders’ homes to “check their security”. This took everyone in the licensed firearms community by surprise. At the time it was thought that the new guidance tied into frantic anti-terror activity taking place nationwide. What nobody considered was that the extra visits would naturally incur extra costs.
With extra costs to take into account, a higher baseline for licensing fees could then be set. Whether or not the police spent the revenue generated by licensing on licensing was immaterial; all money generated from licensing fees goes into the police force’s general budget. By keeping costs high through a number of labour-intensive short term initiatives, an artificial price rise could be justified to generate a profit.
Fast forward to today. Damian Green has been replaced as firearms licensing minister by Lynne Featherstone, a Lib Dem, for the last few months until Man’s general election. Her party has been making political overtures to Labour, who have been openly anti-shooting in their pre-election rhetoric. Her department – with or without her direct knowledge – has now laid the ground for a series of short-notice rises in certificate fees. Labour has repeatedly stated that it wants to jack fees up to £200 for an FAC, and if the Conservatives lose the election, the groundwork is now in place for them to do that. Police lobbyists, colluding with the Home Office, have prepared the ground for what they hope are their future Labour paymasters – see the remarkable similarity in rhetoric from ACPO and Labour earlier.
April’s rise in fees is the first rise in a long line. There is now no way for the shooting public to stop them unless politicians can be convinced otherwise. Individual shooters and the major shooting bodies need to start lobbying politicians now and fighting for inflation-only fee increases. Even that will be a desperate rearguard action.