Private Security Industry Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Fearn: I shall be brief, unlike the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). Is one of the directions the timing of setting up the authority? Will that be the Secretary of State's first direction? If so, is there a time scale in mind?

Mr. Bruce George: I have no concerns about whether the directions given are published. In many cases, they should be. The question is when they should be published; at the time of the direction or in the annual report. It would be interesting to know the range of means by which the Home Secretary or the Minister of State will communicate the views of the Home Office and, I presume, other Government Departments, to the SIA. We are not creating an independent fiefdom of the private security industry or any other group of organisations. I would be appalled if the SIA regarded itself as separate from Government and able to do what it wanted and merely reported to the Home Secretary or Parliament annually.

When I first became a Member of Parliament and my local councillors whinged that I was pinching a lot of their work by holding weekly surgeries, I wisely said that enough casework was available to keep us all fully engaged for a long time. Crime prevention is a sufficiently enormous job not only to keep the Home Office and its competent civil servants in jobs to retirement and way beyond, but to provide ample scope for the SIA.

The Home Secretary has an advantage that the chairman and chief executive of the SIA will not have. The Home Secretary will be aware of the activities in the Home Office, involving the police, civil servants and the fire service, and links with the intelligence services and other Departments. The scheme under which the SIA will, I presume, work will be much more limited and restricted to the private security industry in all its dimensions.

I envisage an enormous advantage for a Cabinet Minister and his deputy, who will have the organisational and informational breadth of activity to be able to communicate to the SIA in one of a variety of forms. One level will be through statutory instruments. For hon. Members who have not read it, I recommend the report by the House of Lords Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation in which it offered its wisdom on the Private Security Industry Bill, saying:

    ``There is nothing in this Bill which the Committee wishes to draw to the attention of the House.''

Far more interesting is the evidence given to that House of Lords Committee by the Home Office, which lists all the different examples of when statutory instruments will be used and what response is available to the House of Commons and, I presume, the House of Lords. However, I do not speak as somebody with any experience of government. There is one person here who is in government, and he and the distinguished Secretary of State will know the methods by which their personal or departmental views will be communicated to an organisation that will be set up by the Home Office.

Mr. Bercow: I welcome what the right hon. Gentleman said about transparency. However, with respect to him, we are debating not merely the communication of personal views, but a proposed amendment to a clause that confers a substantial power on the Secretary of State. In the light of what the right hon. Gentleman said about Ministers having access to certain information to which the SIA may not have access, will he say whether he thinks that the Secretary of State should be able to direct the granting of a licence to individuals, or the refusal to grant a licence? Does he think that that is what Ministers have in mind? If Ministers do have such things in mind, should they be open about it? That would be consistent with the right hon. Gentleman's comments about transparency.

Mr. George: I have no idea what is in my hon. Friend the Minister of State's mind at any stage, but I can imagine instances when it will be necessary for the Secretary of State to communicate sensitive information to the SIA.

In Russia—this country is not in such a position—a high percentage of private security companies are run either by the KGB or criminal gangs. What if such an organisation set up a branch in this country for the purpose of investigation or to pursue people for the Russian Government? What if such a company wished to take over a British or European company using laundered money? The SIA may not have access to such information, but the heads of MI5 and MI6 would have a word in the ear of the appropriate Minister, who could then have a word in the ear of the chairman or chief executive of the SIA. I assume that that would not be committed to the public domain.

Mr. Bercow: Why not?

Mr. George: Did I hear the hon. Gentleman correctly? I cannot argue any further; if he thinks that much information of such sensitivity should be put on the website—too much is, anyway—he is making a big mistake.

Mr. Bercow: It would depend on the circumstances of the case. I say in all sincerity to the right hon. Gentleman—he knows that I respect his position—that I am concerned about establishing transparency, which he said that he supports. I accept that the right hon. Gentleman cannot predict what the Minister thinks, but is he saying that, because of the greater knowledge available to the Government, they should be able not only to communicate their view, but to insist on whether an individual should be granted a licence? If so, does he accept that that directly conflicts with what Lord Bassam of Brighton said in the other place? What is the Government's position, and can it be clearly established?

Mr. George: The Minister of State outranks his colleague in the House of Lords, and two months have elapsed since the House of Lords debates. All of us, not least those in the Home Office, are learning; the Home Office's interest in private security is a recent phenomenon.

I do not want to give colleagues a lecture, because I am not competent to do so on this matter; I have never been and am not likely to be a Minister. However, there is a range of available methods. I recall attending a lunch at No. 10 when the then Prime Minister, Lady Thatcher, merely lifted her head to look in the direction of Charles Powell, and up he jumped. I am not aware of any words having passed her lips or any

gesticulation of either her left or right hand. It was merely a glance—no doubt a piercing one—that led to the intended reaction. There will be a whole range of methods of communication. Psychologists talk about the law of anticipated reaction; this leads to students dressing up as lawyers even when they are in their first year at university. People behave according to how they believe they should behave.

11.45 am

The Home Secretary will appoint the chairman in the first instance, so he should be reasonably compatible with the future incumbent of the office. I should be interested to know the range of methods of communication. Anyone who has been in the Government or who aspires to be in the Government knows that there is a range of methods and modes of communication that do not have to be absolutely formalised. The Conservative party has operated for centuries on that basis, as have all political parties.

I do not have the slightest anxiety about any malevolence on the part of Home Secretaries. Over the years, they have all been either competent or exceedingly competent. I have no worries that they are closet fascists, closet communists or mentally deranged. They have a great deal of input to make into the setting up, the workings and the future of the SIA. They will be the people who can integrate the various Government Departments.

I wrote an article about the myth of non-regulation, which, thankfully, no one read, because it countered the argument that I have been advancing for the past 25 years that there is no regulation in this area. In fact, there is an enormous amount of regulation and anyone who has been the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the Minister for Energy or a Secretary of State for Defence could explain exactly how much regulation in respect of the police or security operatives is outside the scope of the Bill.

Mr. Bercow: Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that the Secretary of State should have the power to insist on the refusal or the granting of a licence?

Mr. George: I am not speaking for the Home Office. There may be exceptional cases when such action will be necessary. If I had sensitive information that had been derived from the United States, for example, about an individual, it would not be necessary for me to drag into my office the chairman of the SIA and say, ``You will not grant a licence to that individual because I have information from X intelligence agency in the United States that he is funded by the Russian or Italian mafia. He is an undesirable person. Although I am not telling you not to issue a licence, I shall leave you to look at the file to make your own judgment.'' In some circumstances, such action would not only be desirable, but absolutely necessary.

I do not believe that such provisions will be abused. As the Minister of State said, the industry is evolving. In 20 years from now, the number of man guards will be far less because, regrettably or otherwise, technology will have supplanted them. The Home Office and other Government Departments must be able to change gear without coming back to Parliament to ask for new legislation and I believe that the Bill is sufficiently flexible to allow them to do that.

We will have the Home Affairs Committee, the Defence Committee, the statutory instrument process, parliamentary questions, private briefings with the Home Secretary, meetings with the chief executive or the chairman of the SIA and an annual report. There will be many opportunities for Members of Parliament to express their views without necessarily thinking that somewhere in the Home Office is a malevolent individual who is hell-bent on denying them the necessary information.

The Minister would be capable of providing more detail on many occasions, and that information could, quite legitimately, swiftly be made public. However, there must be many circumstances in the murky world of policing, national crime and international private security in which it is necessary for information that is transmitted not to find its way into the public domain. If the chief constable of any police authority were asked if he would be prepared for all communications to his officers or to the police authority to appear in the local newspaper, he would think that we were bonkers.

 
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Prepared 24 April 2001