Police were left with a bill of £267,000 for running Northern Ireland’s firearms licensing system last year, it has emerged.
A report published yesterday by the NI Audit Office said the licensing regime, overseen by the PSNI, should be achieving full cost recovery.
But it revealed that the service costs police £1.6m annually, with only £1.3m being recovered, effectively meaning there is a public subsidy (£267,000 in 2017-18) for the system.
And while the increase in fees from May 2016 has moved some way towards achieving full cost recovery, the report said there is “no clear plan to achieve this in the foreseeable future”.
The PSNI moved to a fully online system for firearms licensing from July this year.
In November 2017, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) raised a number of issues with the Comptroller and Auditor General, Kieran Donnelly, around the operation of the licensing system.
In his report, Mr Donnelly highlighted “significant backlogs” in applications, stating: “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.”
According to Mr Donnelly, the BASC contended that delays have led to situations where license holders who had submitted applications found themselves outside the law as their licence expired.
The report added: “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.”
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.”