HC Deb 01 November 1995 vol 265 cc211-33

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Conway.]

10.4 am

Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise on behalf of the Home Affairs Select Committee a matter of considerable concern in the country at present—the private security industry. I am pleased that some of my colleagues on the Committee have been able to raise themselves at this unusually early hour to take part in the debate.

The Home Affairs Committee inquiry into the matter began a year ago, and we reported on 7 June of this year. The industry has grown so large that it is by common account larger than the entire police force in this country, and, by some accounts, twice as large. Yet there is great concern at the number of cowboys, rip-off merchants and villains involved, to say nothing of the industry's low wages and the danger to the public which is associated with some sections of the industry. There is also concern about whether the industry ought to be acting in the way it is by appearing to take powers away from the police.

There have been calls for state regulation, which, until recently, have been resisted by the Government. The Government's position has been that problems in the private security industry can be dealt with by self-regulation within the industry, and that a licensing system would be expensive, bureaucratic and a burden on the taxpayer. The Government believed that matters concerning the quality of training and wages could be dealt with better from within the industry by the industry and its customers, and that that might be done by strengthening the existing regulations and mechanisms within the industry.

The Committee took evidence from anyone who was interested in the matter, and we were told a number of things. First, we learned that many allegations about the quality of the industry were justified. There was a great deal of evidence about criminal behaviour, poor quality of work, poor working conditions and inadequate training, and we heard about private neighbourhood patrols which seemed to be little short of protection rackets.

Secondly, we were told that there were a large number of self-regulating bodies which the Government had supported within the industry, many of high repute. Those included the International Professional Security Association and the British Security Industry Association, and a large number of established firms were members. Alas, not every firm had joined, and it was estimated that 80 per cent. of private security firms were not members of one of the self-regulatory bodies. Not every employer required the private security firms which they employed to be members of such bodies.

Thirdly, we heard that there were problems with ascertaining whether those who were involved in the private security industry had previous convictions. Fourthly, we were told that, whatever our feelings on the issue of non-intervention in business by the state, the state did have a duty to protect citizens from racketeers and villainy. We heard about one firm where 11 out of its 26 workers had between them 74 convictions, with one of the workers having 48 convictions.

As a recorder, I tried a case not long ago in which a security guard opened premises at night to the other members of his gang. When that security guard was eventually caught, it was found that he had been appointed notwithstanding the fact that he had a substantial number of previous convictions for burglary and other forms of dishonesty. We were told that the state had a part to play in establishing minimum standards of employment, and that it certainly has a part to play where police work is involved. In particular, since there was nothing to stop villains and exploiters from setting up in business, the public had a right to expect the state to play some part in controlling the industry.

Fifthly, we heard that the problems were in the manned guarding sector of the private security industry, where the service is bought on a cost basis rather than necessarily according to quality, and where competition is fierce. Those factors have meant that wages in that sector are low, sometimes as low as £1 an hour.

We heard that a third of those in the industry were earning between £2.30 and £2.60 an hour, and that therefore the quality of the recruits was low. That has also meant that there is a high turnover, low training levels and excessive overtime; and that, from time to time, the difference in pay is made up by unemployment benefit. Such are the conditions in the manned guarding sector.

Sixthly, we heard few complaints about the technology and alarm side of the industry.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)


Sir Ivan Lawrence

I give way to my colleague on the Home Affairs Select Committee.

Mr. Mullin

In the light of what the hon. and learned Gentleman said about appalling wage rates, does he agree that the introduction of a national minimum wage might be of benefit? Does he recall that one or two witnesses from the industry whom we interviewed said that a national minimum wage would not cause them any problems, and that it would prevent them from being undercut by the sort of cowboy outfits that the hon. and learned Gentleman has just described?

Sir Ivan Lawrence

The hon. Gentleman knows my views about a national minimum wage. I believe that its introduction would harm employment prospects and would cost jobs in our communities. It is one thing to say that there are problems because of the exploitation of the work force in the private security industry, but quite another to take a large leap and argue that the Government must introduce a minimum wage. There is a space in between, in which some improvements to the running of the private security industry will secure much more acceptable wages for its employees. The Government share my belief that it is not for the state to force the level of wages to the point at which large-scale unemployment occurs.

Mr. Mullin


Sir Ivan Lawrence

I would like to make some progress. No doubt the hon. Gentleman will catch your eye, Madam Speaker, and be able to develop his argument.

Mr. Mullin

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way just in case I do not get called?

Sir Ivan Lawrence

I am sure that, if the hon. Gentleman is diligent and stays in the Chamber long enough to take part in the debate, he will almost certainly be successful.

Seventhly, the Select Committee was told that, although the level of offending in the private security industry was no higher than it was among the general public, public confidence required the industry to be whiter than white. Eighthly, we heard that the industry was in favour of compulsory state regulation. Furthermore, to our astonishment, we heard that the industry was prepared to pay for it itself so that it should not be a burden upon the taxpayer. That was a significant comment, and I know that the cockles of the Minister of State's were warmed when he read that evidence.

Ninthly, the Committee heard that there was a difference of view about how the vetting of employees should be done to discover their character and whether they had any previous convictions. By whom and to what extent should such vetting be conducted? What should be done about the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974? At the end of the day, companies do not have to check employees if they do not want to do so. They cannot ensure that no lies are told, and they cannot check identities if false identities are offered. Nothing much can be done to stop bent firms, especially if the employers are bent.

Finally, the Committee heard that, if a regulatory system was decided upon, the necessary legislation could be introduced neither quickly nor simply. Provision must be made for laying down standards; the creation of criminal offences and the introduction of an appeals mechanism. There would have to be a method to distinguish between the size of companies to which certain rules would apply.

Any legislation would have to include details governing conditions of work, including hours of work and pay; gender and equality and the introduction of permits by agencies. The powers of the police would also have to be specified, as would the powers of the Home Secretary. Such legislation would have to be so far-reaching that a truly terrifying list of necessary activities would have to be performed before it could reach the statute book.

In short, the remedies suggested for the ills of the industry were of two kinds. First, tighter controls should be imposed on individuals working within it. That could be achieved by allowing access to criminal records or by licensing approved guards, or both. Secondly, only licensed companies should operate within the industry.

It was clear that, if any of the traditional police roles were being transferred to private security companies, adequate safeguards would have to be provided for the protection of the public. It was also clear that there needed to be firm action to tackle the growing problem of totally unregulated private local patrols, which prey on the fears of the vulnerable.

The vetting procedures should also be tightened so that the wrong people do not become guards. At present, the private security industry is not in the list of categories in which anyone can have access to criminal records.

What did the Committee recommend? First, we recommended that greater access should be given to national criminal records as part of the vetting procedures of private security industry companies; that vetting should not be done through the companies directly, but through a self-financing agency, which should be empowered to insist on proof of identity of the person to be vetted; that vetting should be limited to recordable convictions and cautions held on the Phoenix database that recently came on stream.

Secondly, we recommended that the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 should not apply to the provision of private security services. Thirdly, we recommended that there should not be a blanket ban on anyone with a criminal conviction, irrespective of how long ago the act was committed or how irrelevant that conviction was. We concluded that a substantial reduction in the incidence of unsuitable people operating in the industry could only really be achieved by a licensing system.

We recommended that, first, everyone working in manned guarding system only should have to be licensed to do so. That is where the worst examples of danger to the public occur. Secondly, we noted that the same problems did not tend to arise where companies employed in-house guarding as opposed to contract guarding. Thirdly, we recommended that the vetting agency should also issue the licences.

Fourthly, we recommended that it should be a criminal offence for guards to operate without a licence and for companies to employ an unlicensed guard. We also said that, although a case had not been made for statutory regulation of the systems installations and alarm sector, if the industry did not improve its rules and regulations, or were standards to deteriorate in that sector, such regulations should be considered. The rationale for withdrawing from regulating that sector was the old-fashioned one: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

We agreed with the overwhelming majority of the evidence that we received, that the advantages of regulation of the manned guarding sector to ensure quality of service and protection of the public, industries, customers and the work force outweighed the loss of commercial freedom. We recommended that a statutory regulatory system should be set up under that sector. That would entail legislation making it a criminal offence for an unregulated company to offer contract guarding services.

It would entail the creation of a new agency, which would have to be accountable to Parliament through the Home Secretary. It is obvious that it should have strong links with the police, industry and commerce. However, it must be independent of the security industry itself. There would need to be time to work out the details, which we did not attempt to go into, and a transitional period to phase in the changes.

Finally, we recommended that the licensing system should be sufficiently adaptable to allow its extension to cover other parts of the industry, such as door supervisors, who we had always thought were called bouncers. Meanwhile, that sector should be the subject of close attention from local government and, in particular, the use of best practice in existing local registration schemes, some of which we examined briefly and seemed to be good and successful, should be encouraged.

That was what we reported in June, and normally, we could have expected the Government to reply in about two months. Four months later, they have not yet replied, and I am not over-optimistic that we will have a response today.

In fact, we have received a holding reply from my right hon. Friend the Minister. In a letter dated 25 July to the Clerk to the Committee, Mr. Crispin Poyser, we were told that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary regretted that he is not yet able to offer a full response … He is considering with colleagues the wide-ranging implications of the Committee's recommendations and will reply in detail as soon as possible. However, my right hon. and learned Friend made a number of provisional observations. He agreed that the growth of the industry had given rise to concerns; that there was no question of transferring core police tasks to the private security industry; and that the Government shared the Committee's concern about reports of poor standards in the manned guarding sector. It was also clear that the vetting arrangements required further consideration.

The letter added that the Government agreed with the Committee that self-regulation had worked well in the systems installations sector, and they would continue to observe the situation. The Government gave the issue of guidance on door supervisors a high priority and would look at the impact of the advice that we recommended. The central recommendations for access to criminal records for all parts of the industry, with an exemption from the provisions of Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 and statutory regulation of companies and licensing of individuals in the manned guarding sector, were now being addressed urgently, and a formal response would be sent as soon as possible.

We know that the Government's attitude to the matter has changed, because my right hon. Friend the Minister of State told the British security industry's annual luncheon recently, as he told the Committee, that a week was a long time in politics. We are greatly heartened by that.

Mr. Walter Sweeney (Vale of Glamorgan)

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that, if the Government find the issue too complex to respond to in full at this stage, it would be a useful halfway house at least to grant that details of criminal records should be available to those seeking to employ people in the security industry, and that, in respect of such records, the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 should not apply?

Sir Ivan Lawrence

Naturally, the workings of the Committee are so close and integrated that my hon. Friend has read my mind and anticipated the next and final part of my speech.

We all appreciate that the length of the Government's consideration is due to the complications involved and the fact that we did not produce—nor could we be expected to produce—a detailed framework for legislation, which, of course, would have to be thoroughly worked out and tested. There would also have to be full and thorough consultation with the industry. Therefore, we accept that it is unlikely there will any comprehensive legislation on the subject for some time yet.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Sweeney) pointed out, that does not mean that it is impossible to take action on parts of the programme. The most serious aspect of the matter is where crooks masquerade as bona fide security guards. That could be stopped by legislating to allow previous convictions to be looked into by the police, and by extending the operation of exemptions from the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 to cover the employment of security guards.

I therefore invite my right hon. Friend the Minister to make those changes as soon as possible, or at any rate to encourage hon. Members to choose such legislation if they should be successful in the ballot for private Members' Bills in the new session of Parliament, and to commit the Government to the support of such legislation.

If the Government act on a problem that is both worrying and growing, and which is causing considerable distress to sections of the community, they will not only earn the thanks of a nation that has a right to feel trust in those who are guarding and protecting it and its property, but will gain the thanks and admiration of the private security industry itself, which I know my right hon. Friend the Minister once, in an earlier incarnation, graced.

10.25 am
Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South-East)

We all know that security and the fear of crime are at the top of the public's agenda, if not that of the Government. Home Office statistics alleging the reduction of the rate of criminal activity mean nothing to millions of people who are afraid to walk out of their own doors. In that atmosphere of fear and alarm, the potential for growth in the private security industry is huge, and the issue of regulation and licensing must be addressed constructively before it spins out of our effective control. As it is, the industry employs over 160,000 people—more than the police service.

There are three main points that I want to make. First, regulation must be implemented to safeguard the public. Secondly, those working in the industry must have certain standards of employment so that they are not exploited. Finally, the issue of accountability needs to be addressed.

The Select Committee on Home Affairs found overwhelming evidence that the industry contains a large amount of criminality. It is obscene that convicted burglars are allowed to protect homes from others who are pursuing their former occupation. Regulation is needed to ensure that those purporting to protect are themselves trustworthy and fit to give that protection. Nothing less than the safety of individuals, many of them extremely vulnerable, is at stake.

However, it is not to enough to call for mere regulation. Self-regulation has palpably not worked. Protection rackets have sprung up, where cowboy outfits charge £1 a week or more—that has happened in my constituency—to protect a home. Responsible firms have taken steps to ensure decent standards. Many have developed membership of trade associations, training programmes and vetting procedures, but many have not, and will not unless they are required to by law.

People who can afford high-quality security will get it, while the poor suffer at the hands of the unregulated and unscrupulous. The Home Secretary has been predictably dismissive of the need for tighter control. He is relentless in his pursuit of a free market dogma that will place people at risk. Home Office Ministers have even sought to apply the principle "let the buyer beware" to the industry. That beggars belief.

I stress the need for regulation, because without it we cannot be certain that those in the private security industry are responsible enough to wield the considerable power they hold. I am not calling for restrictive measures that would cause mountains of paperwork and bedevil effective operation. However, the freedom to operate should not be mistaken for a licence to prey on the fears of the public.

The unregulated marketplace, which self-regulation unfortunately too often resembles, is an arena for the unscrupulous to drive out the responsible. As so often in commercial life, the good are tarred with the same brush as the bad. A licensing system must be introduced in conjunction with proper training. Companies and individuals must be subject to that procedure.

I agree that the worst cases in the industry involve the manned guarding sector. Therefore, I accept that, for the time being, that sector alone should comply with any new laws; but there should be room in the legislation for those laws to be expanded to other sections should it become necessary.

In addressing the issue of regulation, we must not be concerned solely with those whom the industry serves. Regulation will also protect employees, as standards of safety and pay are appalling in many companies. Many guards must work a disgraceful number of hours simply in order to take home a living wage. While at work, they are often vulnerable to attack and receive no support from their employers.

Many guards are given no training in how to deal with the difficult situations they may face. I have heard reports of security guards who were attacked on site, taken to hospital and then sacked the next day because they could not turn up for work. That is what occurs under the free market of labour: lives are not valued, because irresponsible companies know that their employees can do little to protect themselves.

Regulation would be the first step in halting exploitation of the guards. It would provide training and put in place standards of safety and good practice that would insure guards against putting their lives at risk while their employers go unchecked.

10.30 am
Mr. John Hutton (Barrow and Furness)

I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) on his good fortune in securing a debate on the private security industry. In doing so, he has performed a service both to the House and to the Home Affairs Select Committee.

I do not intend to repeat the arguments that have been presented to the House already in favour of regulation of the private security industry. Anyone who heard the evidence submitted to the Select Committee and who read the Select Committee's report could only reach the same conclusion as the Committee. The arguments in favour of regulation are compelling. Without rehearsing those arguments, I shall summarise them under four headings.

First, voluntary self-regulation has clearly failed to establish sufficiently high standards in the industry. That is because more than two thirds—almost three quarters—of the companies involved in the industry are not party to any self-regulatory mechanisms. The practices pursued by the best companies in the industry are constantly undermined by the cowboys.

Secondly, we have seen clear and disturbing evidence of criminality in the industry. The hon. and learned Gentleman referred to the case of a company that employed 26 people, 11 of whom had previous convictions. An even more astonishing example of criminality was revealed in the evidence submitted to the Select Committee by the Association of Chief Police Officers.

It drew the Select Committee's attention to the case of one employee in the private security industry who had applied for a shotgun certificate. His employer endorsed his application for a shotgun certificate, stating: I have known X for one year … he has worked for X (Private Security Company) this length of time. X has a sociable nature and a good, even temperament. I recommend him as honest and a very reliable person, who can be trusted". When the police inquired into that employee's application for a shotgun certificate, they found that he had 15 previous convictions for dishonesty and violence. One of those convictions was for a burglary that had involved the use of explosives. Even more disturbing was the fact that the employee had a conviction for the manslaughter of his wife, who had died when he attempted to perform an illegal abortion.

It is not sufficient for the Government to say—as they have in their evidence to the Select Committee—that the evidence of criminality among members of the private security industry is the same as among the general public as a whole. I do not believe that that is the correct argument. The point is that the evidence of criminality among members of the private security industry is significantly higher than criminality among members of the police force. That is the comparison that the Home Office should have made.

Thirdly, the Select Committee found unacceptably low employment conditions, appallingly low pay, a weak training record on the part of most of the companies involved in the industry, and abysmal career prospects for employees. Many employees in the industry must work very long hours under unsocial conditions simply in order to make ends meet.

A job advertisement appeared today in the job centre in Barrow in my constituency. It offers £2.40 an hour, with no enhanced rates for overtime, for between 30 and 60 hours work a week. It is not possible to attract the kind of people that we want in the industry if they are employed under those terms and conditions. The Select Committee believes that a proper system of statutory regulation could make a significant contribution in that regard.

Finally, as my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Cunningham) said, we must reassure the public about who is performing those increasingly important services in our community.

We must proceed carefully to a system of statutory regulation. I am sure that there will be full consultation among the police, the industry and others involved. We must be mindful of the costs involved and the impact on the industry of any regulatory system. We must also be aware of the damage that will be done to the industry if we do nothing at all. Therefore, I believe that we should make the decision in principle to move quickly towards a system of statutory regulation as recommended by the Select Committee. That would end the current uncertainty, and allow progress to be made in agreeing the important details of the new regulatory framework.

Sadly, there seems to be little immediate prospect of any progress in the field. Many people will conclude that the delay in the Government's response—which the hon. and learned Gentleman, the Chairman of the Select Committee, identified—may have something to do with the confusion that lies at the heart of the Government's industrial policy. It can be described succinctly as a policy of deregulation. The Government's problem is: how can they pursue a policy of deregulation in industry as a whole and embrace statutory regulation for the private security industry without looking foolish?

I am not particularly concerned about whether the Government look foolish; they manage to do that without any help from this side of the House. The problem is entirely of the Government's own making. We need a little less ideology in this area and a bit more common sense in order to make the progress that we all want to see.

10.36 am
Mr. Piers Merchant (Beckenham)

I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) on the work that he and the Home Affairs Select Committee have done in this area. He does the House a favour by debating the subject this morning. There is clearly a good deal of concern in the community about the private security industry, and the Select Committee has provided evidence of the industry's shortcomings.

I am concerned to ensure that, in a society that is prone to hyperbole, we do not damn an entire industry because of the malfunctioning of part of it. We should be aware of the fact that the majority of the industry is honourable, honest and efficient. It is a large industry, that has grown considerably recently. It has high standards generally, and it would be a great shame if the whole industry were condemned because of the malpractice of a few. Nevertheless, we must address the existing problems, and I shall confine my remarks to three areas.

The first is access to criminal records. It is very important that the industry should have the right to access criminal records. The effectiveness of the industry is reliant upon its ability to employ honest people who can be trusted under pressure. Therefore, people with records of assault or dishonesty should clearly not be employed in the industry. If industry personnel are to be trusted, employers must have the right to check the backgrounds of job applicants. It will be possible for employers to carry out checks via the Phoenix system when it is operating properly.

It is important that such checks should be confined to convictions, rather than any other information that may be held by the police. Convictions are on the public record, in any case. It has always mystified me why so much fuss is made about criminal records. After all, the courts operate entirely in the public domain, and public records and press reports of convictions are retained. It is not too difficult for an enterprising individual to search through press records—particularly with the advent of computerisation—and unearth any previous convictions.

I therefore believe that there is unnecessary concern and caution in that respect, and I would welcome the opening up of those records to employers. The Select Committee recommends that. Even Liberty has said that it should be possible, so I strongly back that proposition.

After all, if I may draw a comparison, any statement made by an hon. Member of the House that is recorded in the Official Report, be it 30 or 40 years ago—certainly in the past 10 or 15 years—is readily accessible. That is something that has been said in the public domain. A similar rule should apply to any action that has taken place that is recorded in the public processes.

However, there should be a balancing right for an individual to be able to correct any error of recording, and to explain any detail that may be general or vague. A simple record of a specific conviction does not tell the whole story. A conviction for assault may result from a serious, unprovoked assault which may be part of some other criminal activity, such as a robbery; but the assault may be an example of youthful exhuberance.

Perhaps a student, who had taken part in a demonstration, had been carried away in the heat of the moment and had been involved in an assault on the police when resisting a police instruction. That person would never do such a thing later in life, but they might be subject to condemnation along the same lines as for a serious criminal assault in the pursuit of some other crime if they did not have the opportunity to correct or explain the record as it was kept. It is important to have that balance right.

Secondly, I support the Select Committee's conclusion that it should be right for the private security industry to be exempted from the requirements of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. I have always been dubious about that Act. It creates a legal fiction about which I feel uneasy. Although I would not want in any way to deter the right of a person to rehabilitate themselves after a crime after sufficient years have passed, when their conduct in society had re-established itself, nevertheless the idea that there should be a legal fiction that the crime never took place worries me in principle.

There are exemptions from that concept. They have multiplied over the years, for good public reasons. They should be extended to the private security industry. The Select Committee is entirely right.

Thirdly, I am uneasy with the idea of statutory regulation in any industry, unless it is proved to be absolutely necessary. Although there is a good deal of convincing evidence that it may be necessary in the private security industry, I remain cautious. I would prefer a proper system of industry self-regulation; there is evidence that that can work well in certain industries.

I appreciate that self-regulation has been tried in the private security industry, and that considerable difficulties have arisen, that it has not turned out to be effective so far as a concept, and that the main trade organisations in the industry have now said that statutory regulation is necessary. I regret that.

In the advertising industry, in which I worked for a while, there is a good and efficient system of self-regulation. I was involved in some of the early work that resulted in the setting up of self-regulation in the direct mail industry. There are established examples of self-regulation operating. However, I accept that that is a different industry, and that the rights of the public regarding advertising, although important, do not bear comparison with the much greater protection that is needed in the security industry.

I am three quarters of the way along the line to accepting statutory regulation, but I continue to have doubts. I hope that time will be given, before statutory regulation is introduced, for the industry to have one more chance—perhaps a short time—to try out the development of proper self-regulation, perhaps under the threat of statutory action otherwise.

Mr. Mullin

The industry is begging to be regulated.

Mr. Merchant

I am well aware of that—indeed, I said that a few moments ago—but that does not alter my principled objection to statutory regulation as a concept unless it can be proved to be absolutely necessary. I am not convinced that that is the case. However, as the hon. Gentleman heard me say, I am a long way along that route, and, if a final opportunity for self-regulation can be shown not to work, I would reluctantly accept the need for statutory action.

Last year, I supported in some detail the Activity Centres (Young Persons' Safety) Act 1995, which introduced regulation in those centres. I hope that that shows the hon. Gentleman that I do not take a hard line that would oppose statutory regulation in every case; far from it. Nevertheless, it must be shown to be absolutely necessary in each example.

The problem with statutory regulation is that, once introduced, it starts a creeping process. I read an article in The Guardian dated 8 June on that subject, which specifically said, referring to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary: Let him start on the narrow front, leaving the regulations open so that wider areas could be included later. That is always the process with statutory regulation. One starts on a narrow field, and there is constant pressure to widen it, until one is regulating everywhere.

I do not want a society that has unnecessary regulation or regulations extended into every aspect of life. If we must have statutory regulation, I would put in a plea for limited regulation—perhaps only the licensing of individuals, rather than the licensing of individuals and the regulation of companies.

I leave the House with the following thought. If there is to be licensing or regulation in the manned guarding sector of the industry, applying to contract guarding, I fail to see the logic of confining it to that sector and not extending it to non-contract guarding. If it does not apply in both sectors, I envisage a strange anomaly developing.

All those strict regulatory requirements will affect companies offering the service, but an individual company that wishes to recruit its own individual guard—not a contract company, but a person—will be able to do so without being subject to licensing requirements. That would be a route for contradiction and abuse.

I hope that, if we must go down that route, it will be done more comprehensively, so that regulation covers the whole logical area of one sector of the industry.

10.47 am
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

The Liberal Democrats believe that regulation of the private security industry is essential and has been shown to be, and that that opinion is shared by all the most responsible people in the industry.

That issue has been before us for some time. In 1990, the Defence Select Committee took evidence on the way in which private security companies were being used for defence installations, and expressed great unease about the way in which the pressure to keep the contract price down was leading to unsatisfactory regulation, in some cases by inappropriate organisations.

The hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) has introduced private Member's legislation with support from all parties, including the Liberal Democrats, to try to do something in that industry. In September 1994, the Liberal Democrat conference passed a resolution calling for regulation of the private security industry.

We have before us the report of the Home Affairs Select Committee of May 1995—the Committee of which the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence), who introduced the debate, is Chairman. It is an excellent report, which details the matter extremely well, brings together a great deal of evidence and makes an extremely cogent case.

The report draws attention to the growth in the size of the private security industry, and especially the expansion in the role of the private security industry into areas that were previously the domain of the police, which, it said, give rise to reasonable and increasing concerns about the industry's relationship with the public and about standards within the industry. Part of the background to that is concern that the private security industry should not be taking over police duties and responsibilities.

We feel strongly that the job of policing and maintaining law and order is a job for accountable, disciplined and trained police officers. There have been too many instances lately in which communities and organisations have felt compelled to use private security, not for its proper role, which is extensive, but to provide services that they believe the police cannot supply because of a shortage of resources. The police service itself is anxious about that.

The private security industry is expanding into prisons: first, it undertook prison escort duties, and it is now involved in the running of private prisons. We are unhappy about that, because we believe that the deprivation of the liberty of an individual, where required by the state in pursuit of the law, is a job for the state, not one that should be handed to private agencies.

Despite all that, there is still a massive role for the private security industry. There are many responsible firms and people in that industry, and their leaders want a regulatory system. It is too easy for criminals to be employed in the industry, and it is too easy for criminals to set up their own businesses.

There is absolutely nothing to stop someone walking out of Wormwood Scrubs, hiring a van—or, as someone said when I mentioned this before, stealing a van—acquiring a dog and setting up as a private security firm. That is not good enough, and it is of course a constant threat to the reputation and credibility of the responsible firms in the industry. They feel that especially strongly.

The door is wide open to criminal infiltration of the industry. Evidence given to the Home Affairs Select Committee contained many instances, some quoted in the body of the report, of how damaging that can be. The Association of Chief Police Officers produced a report for which the chief constable of Northumbria was responsible. It cited many instances of such criminal infiltration.

In addition, the industry has worryingly low rates of pay. Associated with that must be the risk that people who fail to meet the necessary requirements will be hired. A constant complaint, echoed in the report, is that there is far too little training. Too many people working in the industry have no training at all. The public are being deluded into thinking that someone in a smart uniform is trained, disciplined and accountable in the way that a police officer is.

The similarity of uniform perhaps leads the public to believe that, even if such a person is not the same as a police officer, he is similar. That may be so when the person involved is a highly trained security officer from a reputable firm, working on a specialist task. However, it is not the case with many people working in the industry. A uniform is not necessarily a sign of good quality training or careful recruitment and screening.

The industry has tried to operate a system of self-regulation, but it has been proved repeatedly that self-regulation does not extend far enough and give reputable firms the protection that they require.

During the last Home Office Question Time, I suggested to the Minister of State that it was not acceptable for the Home Office and its agencies to employ private security firms that did not belong to one of the industry's organisations. I was surprised by his reply. He said: It would be contrary to European regulations to exclude companies … on the basis that they do not belong to a trade organisation."—[Official Report, 19 October 1995; Vol. 264, c. 472.] Of course, it so happens that, in this industry, the self-regulating bodies are part of trade organisations. The Government say that, because of European regulations, they and, presumably, other public agencies, cannot insist that the security firms that they employ are part of a self-regulatory system.

If that is so—I hope that the Minister has reconsidered the matter since then—how much stronger is the case for statutory regulation. If insistence on self-regulation is precluded in the public sector, statutory regulation is all the more important.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Maclean)

Did the right hon. Gentleman pick up the point that I attempted to make briefly at Question Time, that there is nothing to stop the Government or any other organisation setting their own quality threshold and standards for the employees whom they would take on from a private security company? One cannot use membership of a trade organisation as the sifting mechanism.

Mr. Beith

The Minister said that, as with any contract, Departments can set their own quality standards. He has amplified it a little by saying that they could specify the employees. I take it that he means that the Government could insist that employees did not have any previous relevant criminal convictions, but the fact remains that it undermines the concept of a self-regulatory system to say that one cannot take any, notice of whether a company is or is not a member of a self-regulatory body simply because that body is a trade organisation.

That being the case, has the Home Office ever advised the industry to set up a self-regulatory mechanism separate from its trade organisation? I am not aware that it has ever encouraged the industry to find a way around that difficulty to ensure that that can be one of the usual standards and qualifications. We seem to be undermining the whole notion of self-regulation. If the Government cannot make use of it, what use is it? Clearly, we need a better system. It is also clear from the Home Affairs Select Committee report that too few companies chose to take part in a self-regulatory system for it to be effective.

Closed circuit television is another problem. Much of the monitoring of closed circuit television is carried out by private security companies, some of which scarcely qualify to be called that. Closed circuit television is a valuable tool in fighting crime. Although the Home Secretary has occasionally sought to suggest that the Liberal Democrats are not in favour of it, he regularly opens such schemes in Liberal Democrat-controlled authorities which have set them up with the help of the Home Office.

I hope that the Home Office will eventually cough up the money to install a closed circuit system in my constituency. We have been pressing for it for some time. We thought that the latest list was supposed to help the smaller communities, but it seems that too many of the larger places are at the front of the queue.

There is no control over what happens to the video tapes produced by closed circuit television. There is evidence that such material is being obtained for the production of violent commercial videos. It is also possible to obtain it for blackmail and other purposes not related to its proper use. An unregulated activity is being carried out by unregulated companies.

I would expect any system of regulation of security companies to cover their conduct in this sphere. The problem has to be dealt with one way or another. Otherwise, sooner or later, someone will start switching off closed circuit television systems because they are being abused, and the public's co-operation will be undermined.

The product of closed circuit television is used to fight crime, but if it is going to finish up as a violent product on video shop shelves and seen by children, the whole exercise will be fatally damaged. We cannot allow that to happen.

Another problem is that of bouncers. I believe that they are sometimes called door attendants, but they are bouncers in the Bigg Market in Newcastle. I do not know whether the hon. and learned Member for Burton visited the many night clubs in Newcastle to examine not only the bouncers but what went on inside—

Sir Ivan Lawrence

I did not.

Mr. Beith

The hon. and learned Gentleman tells me that he did not, but he established that there is a registration scheme, which is an example of good practice and should be encouraged.

Mr. Mullin

What about the Serjeant at Arms?

Mr. Beith

I do not think that the Serjeant at Arms will be required to register. The presence in the world of bouncers of many people with criminal convictions and associations with violent crime was a serious problem on Tyneside. The registration scheme has been a help.

I believe that relevant legislation should be included in the Queen's Speech. The Government should not have delayed as long as they have. It is wholly unsatisfactory that we should have to wait longer even for a Government response to the Home Affairs Select Committee report. We ought to be getting on with it. I know that there are issues still to be resolved, but there needs to be an agency to carry out any regulation. There also needs to be access to criminal records, exemption under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, and action to monitor closed circuit television.

The Government must stop dragging their feet. The private security industry needs legislation in order to be able to carry out its important job properly, and the public need the assurance that when they see a uniformed security guard, they are seeing someone who has been subjected to a proper system of registration and control.

10.58 am
Mr. Walter Sweeney (Vale of Glamorgan)

The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton) rightly stressed that Conservatives tend to be in favour of deregulation. We should certainly look carefully at how we can avoid regulating unnecessarily, and at how we can keep regulations to a minimum. But the evidence we received from some parts of the security industry was overwhelmingly in favour of some form of regulation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) said that he was 75 per cent. convinced by the arguments for some sort of regulation. I would say that it is no good giving the security industry one more chance for self-regulation when we know that we are not worried about the 20 per cent. of the industry which is responsible and which does regulate its own activities; we are concerned about the other 80 per cent., which does not regulate itself.

The Select Committee bore in mind the need to restrict regulation to the areas where there are seen to be obvious problems. Although, for instance, there are problems in respect of the installation of alarms in people's homes and businesses, there is no clear evidence that the situation requires regulation. Current consumer legislation and breach-of-contract law would appear to be the appropriate remedies for people who are dissatisfied with their installations.

The problem of corrupt or bent installers using the opportunity of visiting people's homes or businesses to case the joint and then tip off underworld colleagues can be met by regulating those who can be employed, and introducing a form of licensing based on access to criminal records.

The Select Committee was also concerned about the possible growth of protection rackets. That is a worry in many countries, but here, too, I believe that the answer lies in licensing, both for organisations and individuals.

We also briefly considered the question of bouncers. There is a need, I believe, for the licensing of people and organisations in this area. It is possible for self-regulation to be highly effective.

In September this year, I visited the Sin Bin, a nightclub in Medicine Hat, Canada. It is a place frequented by British troops stationed at BATUS, the British Army training unit in Alberta. Instead of employing large, thuggish bouncers of the type one often sees in this country, the club employs small, weedy bouncers with a very professional attitude. They are equipped with hidden radios, so that, if one of them is trying to get rid of someone, he is soon surrounded by a group of other bouncers. Numbers, not weight and size, soon persuade troublemakers to leave promptly.

In the end, this debate comes down to the balance between preserving the freedoms of the individual and the costs and inconvenience of regulation. The Government need to negotiate with the industry over the right amount of regulation. Clearly, there are relatively inexpensive ways in which regulations can be introduced. Although no definite figures were produced, the Committee came to the conclusion that a criminal record check might cost £20. That seems little enough to spend on such an important aspect of security in our daily lives.

The members of the industry who gave evidence made it clear that they would be happy to bear the costs of this regulation, so they will not be an additional burden on the taxpayer. The industry would welcome and pay for the sort of regulation that the Select Committee has advocated.

As I say, I believe that the Government should negotiate with the security industry, if they have not already done so, with a view to drafting legislation. If it proves impracticable to deal with the whole problem in the coming Session, I would urge the halfway house recommended by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence), who so ably introduced this morning's debate.

11.4 am

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth)

I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) on initiating this debate. The Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee and his colleagues are understandably angry that we are debating the private security industry in private Members' time, instead of debating a Government response to his Committee's report in Government time. The need for action has been clearly spelt out by my hon. Friends the Members for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Cunningham) and for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton) and by the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Sweeney).

The need for regulation became clear long before the Select Committee published its report, but there has been no sign yet that Ministers intend to take firm, positive action. The fudge of giving only employers access to the criminal records of employees—an idea that has been suggested—does not go far enough. It simply would not sort out the rogue employers—and rogue employers as well as rogue employees are certainly a problem, as illustrated in the Committee's report.

Proper protection of the public requires the Government to introduce statutory regulation of the private security industry, and it is time for Ministers to stop dithering and prevaricating. The Labour party's view is shared by the police, the public, the industry itself—and even, I am glad to note, by the Select Committee. The Home Secretary has not yet leaked the slightest whiff of an intention to grasp the nettle, which suggests that he intends to allow things to fester for another full Parliament. That is just not acceptable.

I challenge the Minister this morning to give us straight answers to 10 straight questions. First, will he promise to introduce a statutory system of regulation for the private security industry—yes or no? Secondly, will legislation be announced in the Queen's Speech and introduced in the coming Session of Parliament? Thirdly, will the Minister specifically include manned guarding, patrol duties and door supervision in the legislation? Fourthly, will he agree that the regulation of those who undertake such tasks must include proper vetting procedures, through a publicly accountable system, together with high standards of training and supervision in the industry?

Fifthly, does the Minister accept, in the interests of the companies in the sector which are well run and highly professional, that there should be strict regulation of all companies that undertake such activities? Sixthly, will he accept that these functions can be exercised, as the Chairman of the Select Committee said, by a self-financing agency, accountable to Parliament, through the Home Secretary, for both policy and operational decisions?

Seventhly, will the Minister accept that, while these areas of activity require urgent regulation, many companies offer a wide range of related services, and that the agency should be capable of dealing with all such issues—as suggested also by the Select Committee's report? That might involve training, certification and registration requirements for those undertaking installation work, via systems already in place in the industry. In short, will the agency have the powers and flexibility to cope with a changing market?

Eighthly, will the Minister make it a criminal offence for an unregulated company to offer services in the three fields of activity that I have mentioned? Ninthly, does he agree that there must be effective penalties for those who fail to follow proper procedures with regard to vetting and training? Tenthly, will he accept the necessity for the police to have the power to intervene in the interests of the public when they need to do so?

Those 10 questions, clearly answered by the Minister, would help a great deal to ensure progress on a matter that has exercised the public a great deal in recent times. By answering positively, the Minister would introduce a system that would be practical and not excessively onerous, bureaucratic or costly.

The fact is, I fear, that we are bedeviled by the Conservatives' obsession with ending regulation wherever it exists and avoiding it even where it is needed—except in the public services. I am the first to applaud the ending of red tape and the cutting of needless regulation, but an unregulated marketplace is a place where bad drives out good and worse drives out bad.

The hon. Members for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) and for Vale of Glamorgan have clearly moved some way on the important issues that we are debating, but at the same time they illustrate the reluctance of Conservative Members generally to grasp the nettle. With the Conservative lurch to the right, the playing field is tilted steeply against responsible and professional companies. Lack of regulation is not freedom, but licence in the worst sense of the word. Voluntary regulation clearly does not work. The Home Office does not insist that firms and their employees are registered under the present system.

Last year, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) introduced a private Member's Bill that focused on the private security industry. He said that, if someone wanted to be a tattooist, he would have to be approved by the local authority, but that an individual could set up a security firm and install alarms, or become a private eye, without any qualifications or experience, even after having been released from gaol in the recent past. Those who set up such firms do not have to have local authority approval. Self-regulation is not effective—indeed, it can be avoided. My hon. Friend was right to draw attention to those shortcomings.

Companies are operating in sensitive areas of public life with a complete lack of accountability. Penetration by criminals is of serious concern, even if it involves only a minority. Wages can be low. The most recent trade union survey of security officers' wages that I have seen revealed average earnings of £2.23 an hour. Many employees are obliged to work 70 or more hours a week if they are to take home a living wage. These matters require the active involvement of government. Ministerial hand-wringing is not enough.

It is about a year since we last debated these matters. I said during that debate that, sadly, we had reached the position where it was difficult to find opponents of statutory regulation, apart from Home Office Ministers and criminals who might be deprived of their work within security organisations. It is clear that Back-Bench Conservative Members have moved on regulation, and it is time for Ministers to move, too.

Many people in different parts of the country have been approached by individuals who tell them that they operate a security system and look after homes in the area for a weekly payment. They may hint that homes might not be so secure if money is not paid. They may not always intend to break the law, but such hints are often interpreted by residents as a form of threat.

Such an approach is sometimes close to operating a protection system, which is unacceptable. There have been examples of those developing a security system on an estate telling the police of their plans, then telling local people that they had the approval of the police when that was not the position.

In a brief intervention, the Minister seemed to reflect ministerial comments last year that, first and foremost, for members of the public, it is a case of "buyer beware". That is not acceptable. Such an irresponsible approach misses the point. A Ministry or a large company that regularly buys in security services can make comparisons, test the market, insist that its objectives are met and have adequate legal and professional advice. At the same time, ordinary members of the public and those running small companies are seeking security services. They are rarely in the position of a Ministry or large company.

Concern about the wrong people being involved in private security patrols and their management has been confirmed in different areas. Some of the examples are both frightening and similar in nature. A circular by one group offering patrols by staff free of criminal convictions bore the name of a director who had several convictions for both dishonesty and violence. A senior police officer told me: I personally find it monstrous that people with convictions for burglary in dwelling houses are being allowed to run businesses and work for such companies whilst having strings of convictions for the offence for which they are purporting to protect the public. Another senior police officer wrote to me about a new security firm as follows: You may share my concern and dismay when I tell you that Mr. F (the person who formed the company) is a man with many previous convictions and is currently on bail as well as being a disqualified driver. Working with him in his security business is Mr. G, who has 23 pages of convictions on the Police National Computer … most of these convictions involve burglary and theft in domestic properties. He has only recently been released from prison and he too is a disqualified driver. Claims made by some companies have been exposed as entirely untrue. An organisation which claims to protect homes by charging £1 per week per household issued a leaflet stating that staff were experienced, had a forces background and were in constant communication with the police. It claimed also that all properties were logged on a computer and that the company was registered with the police. The local superintendent who told me about this wrote: My view on having sight of this leaflet was that at best the company was misleading the public and at worst their promotional material was a criminal deception. Mr. A admitted that his staff were not trained, not in radio communication with the police, and not registered under the Data Protection Act. As for being registered with the police, there is no system of registration. When considering last year what were then the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill and the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, we suggested that interim measures should be adopted. Our recommendations were not accepted, and a year has passed with no action being taken by the Government. A cry from the Minister of "caveat emptor" and self-regulation provides no answers. How do the public tell the difference between a genuine service and a virtual protection racket? The answer is that they cannot until it is too late.

There are no controls on who can set up a security business. There are no checks on their criminal record. Invariably, staff are inadequately trained. No checks are made on employers. If the industry is to be involved in such work as patrolling the streets, staff must be trained and must follow a code of practice agreed with the police. That should be basic. The Government recognise that, where private security companies run prisons, the Government have the right to lay down standards of training. Yet for patrolling the streets, no standards are laid down.

Last year, the British Security Industry Association's journal, Security Spokesman, highlighted the Home Secretary's claim during his speech to the BSIA that there are no grounds for the Government to licence the private security industry because of the insufficient evidence of criminality. The editorial commented: this argument misses the point in one crucial area, that of public accountability". Referring to the industry's greater public profile, the editorial stated: equally inevitably, greater public accountability must follow as a consequence. It is this—not criminality as Michael Howard would have us believe—which is at the crux of the regulation issue. That is a responsible approach to the issue, and I welcome the fact that it comes from within the industry, which has given so much evidence to the Select Committee.

Over a quarter of a century ago, Philip Sorenson, then chairman of Group 4 Total Security, said: It is the responsibility of the security industry to work towards statutory backing for a system of control. That system should allay any fears about the role of private security companies in our society. He was right 25 years ago, and his words are even more urgent and compelling now.

The least we should expect from the Minister is a series of straight answers to the 10 questions I have put to him, and a promise that there will be legislation to deal with the issues to which we have drawn his attention in the forthcoming Session.

11.17 am
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Maclean)

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) for giving me the opportunity to explain the position that we have reached on the important matters to which he referred.

In major parts of the security industry, there is little call for change. In the security system or alarms sector, self-regulation has proved highly effective. The in-house guarding sector has caused no problems. Difficulties in certain areas involving bouncers are being tackled by means of specially designed measures, of which the Select Committee on Home Affairs approved.

That is not to say that the security industry is without problems. As in any other industry or business, there are areas of concern. Like the Select Committee, I think that these problems lie mainly within the contract manned guarding sector of the industry.

According to a research report published by the Policy Studies Institute last year, that sector comprises about 24 per cent. of the industry's employees, not 80 per cent. as has been suggested. None of those employees has a police constable's powers. None of them carries out what we have identified as core police functions, and rightly so.

Nevertheless, many of them will be seen in areas where they have frequent and close contact with the public. It is vital that public confidence in them should not be misplaced. It is important, therefore, to ensure that the bad reputations of a few unsuitable individuals or poor companies do not tarnish the reputation of the industry as a whole.

There is little evidence of criminality across the board within the private security industry, but we have seen some alarming data from the police on various incidents throughout the country.

Of particular note is the part played by bouncers. I am hopeful that the registration schemes for door staff, which are being set up by the police and local authorities in areas where there are problems, will meet that need. Both the police and the Select Committee believe that it could, and we shall shortly issue guidance on the setting up and running of schemes for those who wish to introduce registration arrangements. At the same time, we shall ask the police to help us to monitor the number and operation of the schemes.

My hon. and learned Friend and his Committee offered us three options for improving quality in the manned guarding sector: licensing for individuals; regulation for companies; or to combine the two and set up an agency to run new arrangements for the licensing of individuals and to ensure that companies fulfil certain minimum criteria. The Committee proposed that the licensing of individuals should be based on mandatory criminal record checks, and that there should be greater access to criminal records for a widely defined industry.

I am well aware that one of the main concerns about the private security industry is the employment of individuals who have in the past committed criminal offences. Many see it as essential, therefore, that there should be a means of checking whether a prospective employee has a criminal record.

At the moment, there is no legitimate method of obtaining that information, other than by putting pressure on individuals to exercise their rights under the Data Protection Act 1988 for access to the information on convictions that is held on police computer systems. The problem is that that circumvents the safeguards available to individuals under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, which aims to strike a balance between giving offenders a chance to reintegrate themselves into society and the need to protect society from those who might offend again. It allows convictions that have been become spent, through the passage of time and the individual's subsequent good behaviour, to remain unknown to prospective employers.

There are groups, of course, who are exceptions to the Act, but they do not include any part of the private security industry. I know that that is something that parts of the industry would like to see changed, and it is one of the issues that the Home Affairs Select Committee's report recommended that the Government should consider. It is, though, an issue that needs to be put in the context of the more general question about pre-employment vetting.

That whole subject has been of concern to the Government for some considerable time. At present, criminal record checks are carried out by the police only for certain groups of employees. Most checks take place to protect vulnerable people, such as children, while others are necessary for the purposes of national security or for probity in the administration of the law.

The Government have therefore been reviewing very carefully the current arrangements for vetting. Towards the end of 1993, we issued a Green Paper, "The Disclosure of Criminal Records for Employment Vetting Purposes". It posed 12 questions that had arisen from the Select Committee's deliberations on vetting.

In the light of the 180 responses that we received to that consultation exercise, the Government have been considering a new approach to vetting. We believe that a system of pre-employment checks of criminal records is needed that is more accessible and more open, and which will meet the needs of employers and other organisations who need to employ people in positions of trust.

A White Paper will shortly be published setting out our views. Although I cannot go into details about its contents, I can tell the House that it will discuss ways of enabling a much wider range of employers to obtain relevant information about criminal records quickly and cheaply.

Mr. Michael

The Minister has specifically addressed the issue of checks on employees. Will he now tell us whether the White Paper will also deal with checks on employers, and who will undertake those checks and be accountable to the public?

Mr. Maclean

The hon. Gentleman will have to be patient and wait for the White Paper.

As I said in evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee last December, the introduction of an easily obtainable criminal conviction certificate would be one way of achieving that. Developments of this kind will be possible largely due to improvements in technology, and particularly the development of a comprehensive criminal record database on the police national computer, which will provide access to a much wider range of information than was once the case.

Those proposals would go a considerable way towards meeting the concerns of the police, the industry and others, but it is also fair to point out that criminal record checks on their own will not be enough; not everyone with a criminal record is necessarily unsuited to all jobs, and not all those who are unsuitable for employment in the industry will necessarily have a criminal record.

If criminal record checks are to have a part to play in determining who may be employed as a security guard, the next question is whether unspent convictions should be revealed—that is, whether the industry should be excepted from the provisions of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. I believe that the Act has worked fairly well since its introduction 20 years ago, and we must be sure when considering any case for making a new exception that the purpose of the Act would not be undermined. It may be the case that, under new vetting arrangements, for example, sufficient information could in any case be made available within the current provisions of the Act.

The Select Committee's report also outlined new criminal offences to lend teeth to the new statutory arrangements. We must be very careful to ensure that any new criminal offences, with all the implications that they carry for the criminal justice system as a whole, are created to deal only with a serious nuisance that cannot be dealt with otherwise. That may be the case here, and again it is something that we are still considering.

Mr. Sweeney

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the best predictors of future criminality is when one has committed offences in the past?

Mr. Maclean

It is certainly a clear predictor, but it is also the case that offences are committed by some in the manned guarding sector of the security industry and also by those who are responsible for children and have passed all sorts of security checks. It is an unfortunate fact of life that, despite some 600,000—perhaps coming on for 1 million—checks per annum, mainly involving people who may be working with children, many people who are involved in offences against children have never had a blot on their record before, so there is no perfect predictor of criminality.

The private security industry is a large and diverse organism, and the question whether, and if so how, to regulate all or part of it does raise complex questions. I know that my hon. and learned Friend understands that we are giving very careful consideration to his report. The Select Committee has identified a range of issues and given a steer on how they might be tackled, but, as my hon. and learned Friend pointed out, he has not given us a detailed blueprint on how it could be done. I must say to him and to the House that it is not a matter of Ministers making a grand pronouncement in principle without having tried to work out some of the detail that might follow such a pronouncement.

My hon. and learned Friend's debate today is both timely and helpful, and, as I said in my evidence to the Select Committee, we go a long way together in agreeing on the areas of prime concern, but we must ensure that we get the solutions right. The recommendations in his report touch on the interests of many, both within Government and outside, and, like the recommendations of every Select Committee, they merit close attention.

Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Maclean

I shall conclude now. My hon. Friend can reply if he gets the House's permission.

We will give my hon. and learned Friend and his Committee a full reply when we have managed to give the report the full and proper consideration that it deserves.

10.4 am

Sir Ivan Lawrence

With permission, perhaps I might reply. The debate has been of a very high standard, and it has been across party lines. There has been a minimum of rancour, and the debate has shown the House at its best. It has brought out the important point: that the industry is honourable and is working well, in the main, and it is a sign of the maturity of its leaders that they are prepared to have Government restriction and legislation to control it, to take account of the relatively small section of the industry that is working badly.

We have demonstrated that we recognise that the problem of immediate legislation is very difficult, but if the Government act soon on the question of criminality, that will provide a measure of satisfaction.

Hon. Members have mentioned the conflict between the Government's well motivated desire to deregulate, and the fact that here we are calling for regulation; but the fact has been strongly made that, where the industry is itself calling for state regulation and where there is an outstanding need to protect the public—and where the industry is prepared to pay—this is not a question of relying on the shibboleths of political dogma. There is a practical need to introduce the kind of legislation that has been requested by the Select Committee on Home Affairs.

We are, to some extent, encouraged by the Government's response. The public and the industry will also be encouraged. But we shall only be encouraged—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. We must now move to the next debate.

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