HC Deb 08 May 2001 vol 368 cc37-45 'The Authority shall establish a regulation harmonisation committee with representatives from government departments and other relevant bodies for the purpose of developing and harmonising security standards.'.—[Mr. Bruce George]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Bruce George

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

This is my second and final proposed change to the Bill. Under the new clause: The Authority shall establish a regulation harmonisation committee with representatives from government departments and other relevant bodies". In a similar proposal that was not selected for debate in the Standing Committee, I used the phrase "liaison committee". As I am a member of the Select Committee on Liaison, perhaps that was not the ideal wording. Perhaps the Liaison Committee would have thought that additional functions would be bestowed on it. I meant no confusion.

In the less than eight minutes available for my speech, I hope that my reason for proposing the new clause will be obvious. I have often been guilty of arguing that the private security industry—unlike almost every other industry in the world—is wholly unregulated and unaccountable. Strictly, that was and is true, as other people have also pointed out. However, the security industry is enormous, and only some of it has been brought within the orbit of this Bill. As much of the industry is outside as is inside—that is one of the main deficiencies of the measure.

Even more obvious to me, however, is the fact that a vast sector of the private security "industry" falls within the scope of the public sector. For example, probably as many people are engaged in physical guarding, investigation, installation and monitoring of equipment and information security in Departments, Government agencies and local government as in the private sector. An enormous number of public sector personnel have job descriptions almost identical to those in the sectors of private security that will eventually be covered by the measure.

In many countries, the public sector is subject to the same regulatory standards as the private sector. In all honesty, therefore, one must realise that the security industry is well entrenched in the public sector. The reality is that the Government regulate their own areas of competence extremely well; they look after the private security in their own orbit quite well. However, that does not mean that they are good payers. Until recently, some of the worst paid personnel in private security were employed in Departments.

Furthermore, I certainly would not argue with anyone who believes that security in the museum and art gallery sectors, for example, is infinitely superior to that in other sectors. I had a good friend who was consultant. Despite my frequent protestations and pleadings for him to divulge the contents of a research project that he undertook on a particular museum. he would not go into any detail. However, he told me that the situation was truly appalling. He briefly mentioned that more people were engaged in guarding the museum, which is enclosed and closed for half the day, than there are policemen in my constituency or, indeed, the three constituencies that cover Walsall. He took the full secret to his grave.

I am not arguing that outside the private sector the activities that come within the scope of central and local government are infinitely better regulated. However, in some cases they are. Departments have tried to save for themselves precautions to prevent them from being open to the same criticism as the private sector. That sounds contradictory, but it is true. The Home Office has established statutory and mandatory standards. The privatisation of prisons and prison escorts was implemented alongside a tough regulatory framework set up by the Criminal Justice Act 1991. The standards of security in prisons are high, despite bad publicity, and outside the scope of regulation. The Guard Dogs Act 1975 provided powers, some of which have not been implemented. The Home Office employs in-house and contract security guards, and the in-house sector is certainly regulated.

The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has extensive statutory responsibilities for regulating security in respect of transport. The transport security division—Transec—is responsible for monitoring and enforcing regulations. Its role is to deliver secure public transport systems in accordance with United Kingdom legislation and international agreements, so all those people who fall within the scope of the Department's remit, such as the guards at Heathrow or Gatwick, are clearly subject to strict control and regulation. When I made a close study of Ministry of Defence security, I discovered that its police and guard service employ a variety of private security companies, so it, too, applies strong regulatory standards.

The Health and Safety Executive is responsible for much activity within the public and private sectors. Guidelines on leisure and entertainment are produced by Departments. They set the norms and are mandated in sports ground licences, safety certificates, occasional licences and contracts. The Department of Health, which has responsibility for a vast number of hospitals and other institutions, has laid down clear standards for the hiring of private security staff.

We should consider the role of central Government as a whole. Although I have not tabled parliamentary questions since the 1994–95 Session, it is possible to make a rough calculation based on the figures that were given for those years. I asked how much Departments had spent on security agencies, contract guards, in-house guards, private investigators, in-house investigators, security consultants and the purchase of security equipment. In 1994–95, the total cost of Departments' spending on private security and security agencies was more than £337 million.

Under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, the Home Office plays an enormous role in funding closed circuit television and neighbourhood or community wardens—four such schemes have been funded in my area. It takes 20 days to train a community warden, and that training is infinitely superior to that carried out by almost any private security company. Organisations in central Government—such as the DETR. those in Northern Ireland, and nuclear and defence establishments—employ private security personnel according to different standards.

However, a variety of voluntary standards have been influenced by the Government. For example, the British Standards Institution, Securicor, the Security Industry Training Authority and the International Institution of Security all have different regulatory standards that apply to personnel and to equipment. Hovering in the background—too often, it comes into the foreground—is the better regulation taskforce and it, along with the other organisations, has an influence on security issues.

My new clause is designed to give the Home Office and the regulatory authorities food for thought. I wish to make it clear that they deal with just one part of the private security industry. Other Departments have regulatory authority, and other standards—albeit voluntary—apply particularly to security equipment. I suggest to the regulatory authorities that there should be a committee or some form of grand summit—that may sound rather pompous—that involves the Home Office, regulatory authorities, local government associations and other Departments. The aim should not be to standardise procedures, because that is not possible. However, we should at least try to make the different sectors of the security industry—contract, in-house and those within and without the scope of regulation—aware of what the others are doing through a regular exchange of information.

If my hon. Friend the Minister shocks us all by accepting the new clause, I hope that the Home Office and other Departments will give serious consideration to the practices of a whole range of bodies, many of which I have not mentioned. Although harmonisation is not feasible, we should at least ensure that the guards employed directly by the Home Office or the Foreign Office are subject to similar standards. Consultation is important, and much of the industry will fall outside the regulations. Therefore, the influence of the public sector is important in ensuring that the different organisations meet each other with the aim of achieving a greater degree of commonality than has hitherto existed.

I do not know whether I have spoken for more than 10 minutes, and apologise if I have. None the less, I have pleasure in moving the new clause.

4.45 pm
Mr. Bercow

I am not certain whether the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) has got it right in new clause 5. I have not reached a conclusion on that point, but it is important for right hon. and hon. Members to understand the gravamen of his concern which, I believe, he highlighted on Second Reading initially, and certainly in the enjoyable and stimulating debates that we had in Committee.

The right hon. Gentleman is concerned that, either by an error of commission or—more likely, I suspect, if we follow what might be described as the cock-up theory—by error of omission, the Government may not provide a consistent regulatory framework. The principle of consistency and commonality has run through his contributions on that point. Whether one is an advocate of big or, to put it another way, heavy regulation of the private security industry or, by contrast, an advocate of small regulation or what might be called the light-touch approach, one can nevertheless form an alliance, which may even be an unholy alliance, in support of a consistent approach.

I do not mind conceding to the House that I am a little worried by the reference in the right hon. Gentleman's new clause to "a regulation harmonisation committee", not because I suspect his motives but because I am suspicious of committees. That is the reality of the matter; I am a little alarmed about a new committee emerging. Notwithstanding the right hon. Gentleman's best endeavours to ensure the contrary, a committee under the tutelage of the Minister would be pregnant with peril. My anxiety on that point is not intense, because I do not expect the Minister to chair any committee in the near future in a ministerial capacity, but there is an inherent tendency for regulation, once established, to increase.

I am sure that it will not have escaped your beady eye. Mr. Deputy Speaker, that, in the debate that we had a few moments ago, I referred to the potential for read-across between the new clauses and other pieces of legislation that the House has digested on previous occasions. To explain my point about regulation, I should like to pray in aid the wise words of my noble Friend Lord Biffen who, over many years, has uttered many wise words on many subjects.

When I was taking my A-levels in 1981, I well recall that the then Chief Secretary and right hon. Member for Oswestry—as John Biffen then was—lamented publicly the difficulty of controlling public expenditure and said: You have to run very fast to stand still. There is an analogy with regulation: to keep regulation at a reasonable level at which it is effective, but not burdensome, discipline; and fixity of purpose are required. I—and, I very much hope, the right hon. Member for Walsall, South—do not want a committee to have the ambition to increase regulation exponentially. If the committee had a tightly defined remit—I would be more confident if its remit were drafted by the right hon. Member for Walsall South than by the Minister of State—which was confined to consistency between one sector of the private security industry and another, that might augur well and my initial scepticism about the committee might be reconsidered. However, we do not know—although I imagine that we shall shortly discover—whether the Minister of State has any enthusiasm for the right hon. Gentleman's proposed harmonisation committee.

We need to touch briefly on a number of issues because they are conceptually different from each other and should be treated separately. The first is the form of the regulation—I was tempted to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman on this, but I was enjoying his speech so much that I decided not to—and the procedures that govern the regulation of one sector of the private security industry and another. I was anxious to discover whether the kernel of the right hon. Gentleman's argument was a worry about inconsistent practice and procedure between one sector and another, and that some sectors of the industry would be more rigorously scrutinised and held to account than others.

A separate, but no less significant, issue is whether there would be more exacting training requirements in one sector than in another. There is a stronger argument for absolute consistency in relation to the issue about form than there is in relation to standards of training or qualification. The reason is obvious. Whether we are regulating the work of man guards—or, for the edification of the politically correct classes, perhaps I should say person guards—or are concerned with those who are engaged, through their private security work, in intelligence gathering, the principle that there should be clear procedures before deciding whether someone is bona fide, and legitimate and should be granted a licence should, presumably, be the same. The procedures need to be rigorous, whether we are talking about licensing person guards, their supervisors or those engaged in the important business of gathering intelligence.

I hope that the Minister will accept that things are different when it comes to training requirements. In short, the jobs are very different. The nature and, arguably, the level of skills required for the performance of one function relative to those required for the performance of another are substantially different. I do not believe that the training systems can be the same because the training will be different, and of a different duration. It may be provided by people who on the strength of their experience are expert in one aspect of the private security industry, but not in another. However, there is the principle—I may have been overly pedantic, as this is probably what the right hon. Gentleman has in mind—that there should be a system of training requirement, and that it should not be voluntary. It should be obligatory and apply to everyone who wants to enter the sector or to stay in it.

If someone working in the private security industry in its unregulated form is an effective operative but has no formal qualification, that individual might be offended by any suggestion that he or she is not suitable to perform the duties that he or she is performing under contract. Nevertheless, that individual is not performing the job on the strength of any professional or other qualification, for the simple reason that he or she has never been required to obtain such a qualification. Presumably, whether or not the Bill is amended, it will be obligatory for existing operatives to acquire the qualifications that we are about to insist that new entrants should acquire. I would welcome an assurance from the Minister of State on that point.

Such an approach might be burdensome for people who already work in the industry, but it would be consistent with the letter and spirit of the new clause and would at least prevent the existence of two categories of citizen. It would ensure not only what my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) is inclined to call equality of esteem, but equality of treatment. We would be making it clear that everybody who works in the sector must measure up to the standards. It may be an entirely prosaic matter for a very experienced operative briefly to take the relevant course and examinations, to acquire the certificate and to wear the tee-shirt to say that he or she has done so. Nevertheless, the certainty that existing operatives have acquired the qualifications that their new counterparts will be obliged to gain as a precondition of service is likely to he central to the achievement and retention of confidence in the newly regulated industry.

I have not the slightest idea what the Minister will say about the matter. I have expressed my natural apprehension about regulation and regulation harmonisation, and my even greater apprehension about a regulation harmonisation committee. The proposal seems a slightly suspect specimen, although I am ready to admit that it is much less suspect in the tender and competent hands of the right hon. Member for Walsall, South than it would be in the hands of almost any other hon. Member. In fairness to the right hon. Gentleman, it should be said that the purpose that he has in mind is absolutely sound. The issue is this: does the Minister agree with that purpose and, if he does, does he think that the new clause is necessary? If the answer is yes to the first question, but no to the second, perhaps he would care to explain what I think he would describe in his inimitable terms as his preferred third way.

Mr. Charles Clarke

I was glad that the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) referred to the definition provided by the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) of equality of esteem. I am certain that, after the general election, there will be a debate on that subject in the Conservative party, between the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague)—the current Leader of the Opposition—and the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), as they appeal for the ideological support of various bits of their party. I think that the hon. Member for Buckingham is on the fence with regard to those various attractive propositions.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

He will go with the wind.

Mr. Clarke

I doubt it. The hon. Gentleman is a rather oleaginous man, and oleaginous people do not go with the wind.

On the central point of the new clause, I can answer the hon. Member for Buckingham positively. I recognise its aspiration and I welcome it with enthusiasm. I think that my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) is right to raise the matter with which it deals. As a minor aside, he should acknowledge that one of the ambitions of the better regulation taskforce, which has its pluses and minuses in his lexicon, is to achieve a more harmonised regulatory regime, with a view to lifting burdens from small business in particular. That is important where inappropriate regulation as a result of years of legislation introduced by Governments of all parties has imposed burdens that might be inappropriate for particular firms, industries and so on. Harmonisation—perhaps "simplification" is an even better word—is an important and worthy aspiration for the Government and I can enthusiastically endorse that aspect of my right hon. Friend's approach.

However, the new clause falls into the category of the quarter loaf that I described earlier. There is no fundamental difference of approach between my right hon. Friend and me, but we must consider how to deal with the matter in the context of the Bill. The Security Industry Authority is being established as the central and authoritative regulatory body for the industry and will be given a number of specific and important remits to discharge. To respond to the specific point that the hon. Member for Buckingham made, every organisation that the authority regulates will be obliged to adhere to its standards. That is the right way in which to proceed. To carry out its remit effectively, the authority will need fully to consult all interested parties throughout the industry while preserving its authority and independence. That is axiomatic to our thinking.

5 pm

The industry will be one of the prime sources of intelligence for the authority. However, there are also several other stakeholders to whom it will listen. They include the police, local authorities, customers, employees of the industry, and other public bodies and Departments.

Mr. Bercow

The Minister has reassured me that the Bill will require all existing and new operatives to be suitably qualified, and I am grateful for that. Nevertheless, he also said that he wanted to minimise burdens on business when possible. In the spirit of marrying those twin, equally important objectives, perhaps we should provide an opportunity for existing operatives to acquire the relevant qualifications by short-circuited means. It is possible to take a crash course—it is an unfortunate term in relation to driving—of lessons to qualify to drive. Would the Minister therefore admit of the possibility that existing operatives could acquire the standard and gain the qualification through an intensive course over a shorter period, rather than a more leisurely course over a longer period?

Mr. Clarke

I admit of the possibility, but I do not envisage things being as the hon. Gentleman describes them. As everyone involved in change management knows, managing change from the status quo to the required desirable state is one of the most difficult tasks. It is difficult for any organisation, including a regulatory organisation, such as the SIA when it is established, to achieve. I cannot predict specific paths or educational courses for the change from the status quo to the future, regulated state.

However, when the authority determines its regime for facilitating the change, it is right for it to take account of the fact that many people who currently work in the industry have not had the opportunity to gain the qualifications to which the hon. Gentleman refers. An overnight transformation in such circumstances would therefore be ridiculous. Such matters are all part and parcel of the art of making the change, which the new authority must tackle. That is one reason for the importance of conducting wide consultation. The board that we have discussed will comprise a range of interests that will enable the authority to operate sensitively.

Paragraph 8 of schedule 1 allows the authority to establish specialist advisory committees to help it in its work. That is another important means of establishing a regime. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South knows, we have taken the consistent view that we should not specify at this stage that committee X is right and committee Y is wrong, or that it is right to establish committees A, B, C, but wrong to set up committees D, E and F. That must be a matter for the authority. That is the only reason for urging my right hon. Friend to withdraw the motion.

New clause 5 would require the establishment of a specific committee. Clause 1(2)(e) places a general duty on the authority to set or approve standards of conduct, training and levels of supervision". We believe that it is better to focus on outcome rather than to prescribe in detail the precise bureaucratic structure—I do not use "bureaucratic" pejoratively—for achieving those ends.

I am enthusiastic about a properly harmonised regulatory regime. I believe that we should move towards universality in the way my right hon. Friend suggests. However, I do not believe that it is right to prescribe in the Bill the precise regime for achieving that. We should allow the authority to determine that, in consultation with all the relevant parties. On that basis, I ask my right hon. Friend to consider withdrawing the motion.

Mr. Bruce George

I realise that I should have contacted the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) earlier, because his knowledge of the English language is clearly infinitely superior to mine. The words "liaison committee", which I used in an earlier amendment, might have been better for this purpose. Perhaps I should have stuck to that choice, rather than using the word "harmonisation", which has connotations in relation to Europe and the dislike of anything associated with it.

The new clause is not an attempt to create homogeneity inside and outside the areas to be regulated. I merely wished to make it obvious that the world of private security is infinitely more diverse and complicated than the Bill suggests. I wanted to introduce food for thought and raise awareness in the SIA, which I hope will be enlarged, that it does not encompass the totality of the private security industry.

Because we are part of the European Union, and because existing EU directives and other forms of instructions apply to this country as well as to other member states, there will have to be a degree of harmonisation—as there is already—between the standards in our security industry and standards elsewhere, not necessarily in terms of the Bill, but in terms of training standards, for example. I gave a number of examples of that earlier. The security industry that is to be regulated in this country is therefore part of a larger jigsaw.

I have jotted down the areas covered by private security and by security and community safety in local authorities, in relation to the arrangements pertaining before and after the introduction of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. In Walsall, for example, we have market security for the mediaeval market; an art gallery that might be subject to the legislation; and significant benefit fraud investigations, as does every local authority. Our trading standards department operates according to many of the standards of policing and of private security. It investigates crime and counterfeiting, exactly as the private security industry can do, and its staff has the power to kick down doors, which is more than the police or, certainly, the private security industry have. Because of the way in which that department operates, therefore, it is partly private security and partly police.

Local authorities such as Walsall have education security and housing security. We also have architectural liaison officers, because the Home Office has inculcated a set of attitudes relating to security by design. Most local authorities have community safety departments—Walsall certainly does—and risk assessment units linked to insurance, which advise the local authority on how to minimise risk. That can involve building fences and installing alarms, which, in a way, pertain to some of the responsibilities of the private security industry.

I presume that every local authority has parks—with what used to be called parkies when I was a kid and what might be now called park rangers—and facilities management services. They have a whole list of facilities that might pertain to private security. I had a long list from the Minister of the projects funded by his Department on risk reduction in community protection, of the vast amounts of funds going into drugs awareness and of what is being done to reduce drug dependency. I hope to have a parliamentary answer shortly to my question about the money provided by other Departments for regeneration. That package contains elements relating to security, including private security.

Focusing on one local authority, Walsall borough council—albeit relatively briefly—reveals a bundle of functions within an authority's competence that are somewhere between policing and private security, both before and after the Crime and Disorder Act. I wanted to broaden the horizons of the regulatory authority, and make it realise that there was a world of security outside its scope. I did not wish to lay down communal standards: investigation of art thefts is clearly different from investigation of benefit fraud.

Standards cannot be uniform, but it is to be hoped that if different organisations are aware of the nature of private security—and of Government security that looks like private security—best practice will be disseminated from one sector to the other without the imposition of rigid standards. Perhaps reading the record of our debate will at least encourage the regulatory authority to commission research, and give it some ideas about how to operate. Even if no amendments are accepted, we shall have stimulated discussion. I hope that much of what has been said will percolate into the new authority, whose conduct and operations I shall observe with enormous interest.

Having received some assurances from the Minister, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Forward to