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Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Sylvia Heal): I have now to announce the result of the Division deferred from a previous day. On the motion on Local Government, the Ayes were 362, the Noes were 134, so the motion was agreed to.
Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton). She made a characteristically thoughtful and sensible speech. For the second time in a week, I am about to speak in a debate on a matter on which there is a large consensus, and that grieves me--although I hope to inject some controversy into my later remarks.
I do not know what my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) on the Front Bench is going to say, but he is looking uncomfortable at the degree of consensus about the Bill evident across the House. Consensus is not his natural style, to his great credit, but he will have to demonstrate a good deal of it this evening.
It is also a pleasure to speak after my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler). Subject to the Prime Minister's decision, my right hon. Friend may have made his last speech in the House. In many respects, I hope that I will be proved wrong, but it was wonderful to hear him bring to fulfilment a campaign that has characterised his political career. I am sure that he was delighted to be able to speak as he did today.
I wish to speak on the security industry aspects of the Bill, and on wheelclamping. Both topics flow from constituency interests. I am privileged to have the British headquarters of Group 4 in my constituency--at least, the front gates and the postal address are in my constituency, and many Group 4 staff employed at Broadway in Worcestershire are my constituents, but the company's head offices are in fact situated in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton- Brown). He and I therefore have an important constituency interest in Group 4. Incidentally, the British Security Industry Association has its headquarters in my home city of Worcester, which is not in my constituency.
The key message from Group 4, which should guide the House in its consideration of the Bill, is that the Bill contains no measure that a good company should not be pursuing already. If that is true, the Bill cannot be objected to in any real sense, and we should welcome it.
I am involved in a campaign--I hope that it lasts as long as that pursued by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield--to bring a solution to the vexed question of foxhunting. I am struck by the strong similarities between the Bill and the proposals of the Middle Way Group, of which I am joint chairman.
I do not want a make a party political point, but it amuses me that the Bill appears to have passed through the other place without causing any significant controversy. Some useful amendments were tabled, and the hon. Member for Doncaster, Central mentioned the one relating to wheelclamping and land. In contrast, my humble proposal to license foxhunting seemed to engender much anger in the House of Lords.
It seems to me proper that an activity that impinges on other people, as the operation of the private security industry clearly does, should be subject to some form of statutory regulation or licensing. There is nothing wrong in principle with that, but in saying so I have to grapple with the other part of my persona. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham will wind up the debate, and no doubt will exhibit a real reluctance--which I share--to impose excessive regulation.
I was not a member of the previous Government. I sat on the Government Benches and encouraged my colleagues, but they did not have the wisdom to include me in their ranks. I therefore cannot speak from inside knowledge, but I suspect that the reluctance to introduce regulation arose from the tension between an understanding that something had to be done to protect people--including employees--from a poorly run security industry, and an unwillingness to add to the bureaucratic burden borne by the private sector.
Therefore, if the Bill is granted a Committee stage, the House will have to consider how to strike the balance between those competing principles. It will also have to ensure that the Bill does not give advantages to the big operators and discriminate against the small ones--and I say that as Group 4's constituency MP.
The small operators are not always the cowboys in the industry. Group 4 is a role model for the industry rather than a cowboy, but some bigger firms' practices are also sometimes suspect. The balance between regulation and competitiveness is a difficult one to get right.
Group 4's position is straightforward. It has campaigned for 30 years for statutory regulation of the industry, so it is hardly surprising that it welcomes the Bill. Interestingly, the company states that the measure is a
Under the Bill, everyone in the industry--from chief executives and headquarters staff up to the guards and uniformed operators who offer security services in public places--will have to have a licence. I attended the lunchtime reception held today by the Police Federation, where I was reminded that police officers undergo an intensive training programme and a two-year probation period, and that they continue their training on the job throughout their careers. The federation contrasted that experience unfavourably with the provisions in the Bill.
The better companies offer intensive training, which continues throughout their employees' careers with them. It is right that that should happen, and it is important to recognise that private security staff do not merely hang around Woolworths or shopping malls, keeping an eye out for the occasional shoplifter. Such staff can be engaged in extremely difficult and testing situations.
A recent tragic case involved a security guard who refused to pursue a shoplifter out of a shop. His judgment proved to be correct--the shop assistant who did pursue the shoplifter was subsequently stabbed to death. That is the sort of challenging situation that can arise.
Security officers deal with people in public places, so they necessarily are exposed regularly to people's more eccentric acts. On occasion, private security guards have had to deal with people attempting to commit suicide by burning themselves to death, or with people trying to jump off bridges or hang themselves.
I emphasise that I am concerned about the lack of mandatory regulation for companies. I need to be reassured by the Government that they have done the right thing in not making the provisions of the Bill mandatory.
I said earlier that not all the cowboys are small operators: some are of quite a significant size, and can engage in some very off practices. At the moment, it is possible for people to be on the dole one hour, and in uniform and serving in very sensitive public places the next. I understand that that has happened in some prominent public buildings in London. The absence of a criminal record does not mean that a person is fit and proper to engage in sensitive public activities.
The independence and impartiality of the proposed SIA will be an important issue too. The SIA will have properly to reflect the interests of the different parties, both in the industry and among those who are served by it. Schedule 1 gives the Secretary of State power to appoint members of the SIA. Group 4 believes, and I am inclined to agree, that the framework for the composition of the SIA should be laid down in legislation. Group 4 also believes that the SIA should contain representatives from the industry, employees, customer groups and others. It suggests that the authority should have 12 members, and that that number should be set out in the Bill.
Group 4 certainly believes that the Minister's proposal to leave wide discretionary powers with the Home Office will lead to uncertainty--to have a floating number of members is not practical. If the Government want flexibility, Group 4 thinks that it could be provided by allowing Parliament to consider the size and composition of the SIA at a later date, but for the time being to stipulate in the Bill what the size and composition are to be.