HC Deb 08 May 2001 vol 368 cc56-61
Mr. Hawkins

I beg to move amendment No. 4, in page 9, line 42, at end insert— '(3A) (a) The Authority may, at the request of any person who holds a licence, remove the particulars specified in subsection (3)(b) from any copy of the register which is available for inspection by members of the public under subsection (4) if the following condition is satisfied. (b) The condition is that the Authority is satisfied that the availability for inspection by members of the public of particulars of the person's usual residential address creates, or (if the Authority were not to comply with the request) would be likely to create, a serious risk that he or a person who lives with him will be subjected to violence or intimidation. (c) Nothing in this subsection shall be interpreted as allowing any person not to provide the Authority with any of the particulars required by subsection (3).'. The amendment deals with 42an important concern, which we raised on Second Reading and in Committee, about the security of the details of people who are licensed by the new Security Industry Authority, which will be available for public inspection in the register that it maintains. We have repeatedly stressed the fact that there will be obvious difficulties for people who are engaged in sensitive security work, or who are night club bouncers or wheelclamping operatives, if they are placed at risk of grudge retaliation attacks by having their addresses made publicly available on a register that can be accessed through the internet. We recognise that disgruntled criminal elements could carry out revenge attacks.

In the Committee's final sitting on 1 May, the Minister said that a similarly worded amendment might find favour with the Government. His approach has been constructive. He recognises that, sadly, links have been proven between more disreputable night club bouncers and the trade in illegal drugs. That world is heavily populated by criminal elements. I have raised with him more than once the possibility of attacks on people's homes if they are trading from their home address and it is published on the register. It is not hard to envisage the consequences of such an unpleasant attack, in which petrol is poured through someone's letterbox and set alight. We see that all too frequently in our towns and inner cities. In many of those tragic cases of criminal arson, people in the house have no connection with the subject of the grudge attack, and young children have been burned to death. That has always worried us, and I am glad chat the Minister has been sympathetic to the issues that we have raised.

We drafted the amendment along the same lines as the measure that the Government included in the recent Criminal Justice and Police Bill on the security of company directors' addresses. It would set the same test, whereby the authority should be satisfied that there is a serious risk of violence or intimidation before an address is removed from the register. The issue is serious and we make no apology for returning to it. In the light of the Government's response to it in earlier debates, we hope that the Minister will take a positive approach and, perhaps even at this late stage, break the habit of a lifetime and accept an amendment from the official Opposition.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I, too, shall be brief.

The amendment deals with an important issue and, once again, we have to consider the difficulty of balancing interests. The Bill allows people to opt into a registration system for the security industry. When they register, they become part of the database of information that allows the consumer to discover the nature of the industry, who the owner of a company is and the details of prospective licensed security people. That proposal was debated in Committee and on the Floor of the House, and there has been no disagreement that it is a good thing, but we have to consider whether people should then be able to hide themselves once they have opted in. Although we are sympathetic to the idea, I want to flag up the need for consistency in Government policy.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) was right to refer to the Criminal Justice and Police Bill, which is before the other place. The ability of animal rights activists to get hold of the addresses of shareholders and company employees with a view to protesting has been debated. A separate debate has taken place on whether Members of Parliament should be able to conceal their residential address, because some have been harassed or intimidated. Those arguments raise proper democratic issues. I do not believe that Members of Parliament should be entitled to conceal their residential address because it is important that the public know where their MPs live.

I am more sympathetic to shareholders and people involved in companies that deal with animal experimentation. They do not stand for elected office and are not, in that sense, seeking to do a public job. The caveat is that we need two assurances before they, or people involved in the security industry, are able to conceal their addresses. First, a proper process must be in place to establish whether it is justified to keep them out of the public domain. Secondly, we need to protect people against the fiction of the corporate state. The reality is that to pursue the details of a registered company, it is necessary to go first to the register at Companies House to get its address. However, that might be only a post office box number, which simply receives post, or the head office of a set of companies, from which the company in question might not operate. Technically, the address is a link, but it might be a distraction because it does not get us any closer to the action.

I shall be interested to discover where the Minister's sympathies lie. First, should the address be concealed only in exceptional circumstances, after proper authority has been applied, and when it can be challenged? Secondly, would there be protection against a fictitious or meaningless address being displayed? We are worried that people who opt into the registration system might try to opt out of giving their personal details so that the consumer, who might have a complaint about or an interest in the registration, is unable to track them down and obtain the necessary information.

As a postscript, I want to refer to something that was raised in Committee. I do not know how many Charles Clarkes there are in England or how many Nick Hawkinses there are in the United Kingdom. [Interruption.] I think that the Minister might have been to a certain football ground in Norwich recently. I heard him utter an almost descanted, "There's only one Charles Clarke." I hope that I am allowed 10 seconds of self-indulgence to tell the House that I was on Millwall's terraces on Saturday when it won its last home game of the season 5-0 and took the second division championship. We made a similar chant, although in our case it was a collective "There's only one Millwall football club." That is certainly true, which some people have said is a good thing.

My serious point is that there are many people with the same name. For example, a much more famous Simon Hughes is a very good cricketer, and I was honoured to speak at his benefit. If the residential address is removed, it may be difficult to track down the person who is registered as a licensed private security operative. Nothing will identify the one Charles Clarke, Nick Hawkins or John Bercow from the tens or hundreds of people who share the same name. We need a sensitive response, and I am not sure that removing the address from the register will solve all the problems.

Mr. Charles Clarke

First, may I congratulate Millwall on its promotion to the first division? I assure the team of a very warm welcome when they come to Carrow road. Incidentally, there are more Clarkes in this Parliament than any other name. We are divided only by the presence or absence of the letter "e". The superior clan, such as me, have an "e" and the less distinguished members of the family do not. [Interruption.] The surname of the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) has an "e" and he is a very distinguished Member of the House. We can only commiserate with those who do not have an "e" and regret their carelessness in losing it or their absent-mindedness in not having one in the first place.

It is not entirely fair of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) to chide me for not accepting amendments tabled by the official Opposition. I do not accept every amendment that they table, but I have a reasonable record in accepting their amendments to several Bills that have been considered this Session.

Mr. Bercow

Will the Minister confirm that the factual record will demonstrate—not least in relation to the passage of the Vehicles (Crime) Act 2001—that, although he did not accept any amendments from the official Opposition. by way of a face-saving alternative he accepted the gravamen of the amendments and introduced new clauses of his own at a later stage?

Mr. Clarke

When we discussed the issues in Committee, I genuinely tried to do that. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks and I shall ask my friend Mr. Mark Seddon—the hon. Gentleman's opponent at the general election—to pay the appropriate tribute to him when the opportunity arises. I have also accepted Opposition amendments straight off with whatever loss of face that may result for me. That is the right way for the House to consider such issues.

The issue is serious and was discussed fully on Second Reading and in Committee. However, the best debate that I have attended on the subject took place in the Committee on the Criminal Justice and Police Bill when we discussed animal rights activists. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath for the way in which he moved the amendment. There is common ground in the House on the need to deal with these issues properly.

As I explained in Committee, the wording of clause 12(3)(b) makes it clear that the address to be published in the register is that which satisfies the prescribed requirements". In prescribing the requirements for addresses that are entered in the register, the Secretary of State can take account of the personal safety concerns that lie behind the amendment.

Our intention is that the regulations will require that, in the vast majority of cases, the address entered in the register should be the business address of the firm employing the security operative, or from which the operative works. Some security operatives work from home, so it may be necessary to require the home address to be included in the register, but—as we have said before—we are open to alternative suggestions. The important thing is for the licence holder to be identifiable and to be traceable by the authority.

6.15 pm

Clause 12(1) requires the authority to establish and maintain a register containing the details laid down in subsection (3). Clearly the authority must itself have full details of those it has approved for licences, but that does not mean that the authority must publish that register in full. Indeed, subsection (41 makes it the duty of the authority to ensure that such arrangements are in force as it considers appropriate for members of the public and others to inspect the contents of the register. It will thus be open to the authority to establish a means for individual licence applicants to make a case for limiting the personal information appearing on the publicly available register, and for a suitable mechanism to be established for that purpose.

The general usefulness of the register to the user of security services will depend on its ease of access and the reliability of its contents. The balance is an issue that the authority will have to consider carefully. The key point that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath must consider is whether it is necessary for the authority to consider the appropriateness of publishing information on individuals or more generally. Although it is important for the Secretary of State to take account of personal safety concerns in prescribing requirements, the evidence factor must be a consideration. In the case of the animal rights issues to which the hon. Gentleman referred, there is clear evidence of such organisations' preparedness to attack people in their homes. Evidence is clearly a factor.

Mr. Hawkins

I am grateful to the Minister for the serious way in which he has considered these matters. As he said, there is same common ground between the parties, but is he prepared to go a little further? In any discussions that he might have with his officials over the next few days, which might lead to the Home Office advising the authority when it is set up, will he specifically draw attention to the fact that he will urge the authority to exercise flexibility when people work from home? It would be vary helpful if he could say that.

Mr. Clarke

I am happy to give that important assurance. Two factors are important. First, the Secretary of State can take account of personal safety when he or she specifies the requirements for addresses and, secondly, the authority must decide whether it considers it appropriate to publish the register in full. In both circumstances, evidence—specific or generic—must be taken into account.

I can give the hon. Gentleman the specific assurance that he seeks. I will make sure that the issue is drawn to the attention not only of my officials but of any future Government—whether of his persuasion or mine—after the general election. With that assurance, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be prepared to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Hawkins

As I had hoped, the Minister has been helpful. In the light of what he said about the advice that he is prepared to give and the fact that the authority will examine all our debates on Second Reading, in Committee and tonight, it would not be helpful to press the amendment to a Division. We have ventilated the concerns that are widely shared by all three major parties and this has been a useful debate.

We remain concerned that there will be cases in which the authority feels that it needs to give someone who is in the security sector and who works from home a dispensation so that his home address is not published in a register—either one that is open to physical inspection or one that appears on the internet—so that that person, his family or anyone who stays with him is not in danger from a grudge or revenge attack. The Minister placed much stress on the need for there to be evidence of a threat, but sometimes there is no warning of a revenge or grudge attack, which creates a difficulty.

We recognise that the Minister has been helpful and has said that the authority will consider carefully the use of its powers. In those circumstances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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