Private Security Industry Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Hawkins: I have listened to the Minister's attempts to resolve the conflict between what he is saying with the contents of his noble Friend's letter. My noble Friend Viscount Goschen said:

    ``I understand the natural desire of Home Office officials to issue the Minister with a `get out of gaol free card' to sew into the lining of the back pocket of his coat for some eventuality that may arise in the future which had not been considered.''—[Official Report, House of Lords, 1 March 2001; Vol. 622, c. 1365.]

That is an accurate description of the Minister's argument, which is that he cannot anticipate future circumstances, but in case the Security Industry Authority is not able to listen to informal advice a future Secretary of State may have to issue a direction. If that were the case, should we in Parliament not know about it? That is precisely the point of the amendment.

Mr. Clarke: That is a point for the hon. Gentleman to make in his winding-up speech. I was asked to give examples. They ranged from the relatively trivial direction to include certain uncontroversial aspects in the annual report to the possibly delicate and sensitive direction to investigate a particular company or individual. I acknowledge that that would be a rare circumstance. It would not necessarily be in the public interest for such a direction to be in the public arena, because that would of itself inhibit the purpose of the direction and the activities of the authority.

I do not accept the universality of the amendment. Let us suppose that certain information—whether from the security services, which is unlikely, or from any other source—causes an investigation into a particular security company. If such information were made public, the criminals in that company would cover their tracks before they could be examined properly. I cannot accept that that is in the public interest. That is why I reject the amendment, which, in such circumstances, favours telling the criminals beforehand that they are about to be investigated. That is not a good way in which to proceed. I urge the hon. Member for Buckingham to withdraw the amendment. If he is not willing to do so, I shall ask the Committee to vote against it.

Mr. Bercow: The Minister of State was at his least convincing. He said that the power is relatively narrow. We fear that, by contrast, it is broad. The right hon. Member for Walsall, South declined to say whether he thought the power was narrow or broad, but he explained why he can envisage circumstances in which a relatively broad power would be justified. That is at the heart of the matter. The right hon. Gentleman, in explaining that it might be legitimate and desirable in certain circumstances for the Secretary of State to require the authority not to issue a licence, invoked more information being made available to the Secretary of State by comparison with the free-standing Security Industry Authority.

In effect, the right hon. Gentleman said that he did not know exactly what the Minister was thinking, but looking at the matter from a common-sense point of view, it seemed that from time to time the Government will have access to information about individuals or companies that will not be available to the Security Industry Authority. He said that, in such circumstances, the Government ought to be able to say to the authority, ``We have this information. We are happy to tell you what it is either in detail or in general terms, and you should not issue a licence.'' He went so far as to say that he thought that such cases would be so obvious and incontrovertible that the authority would not argue about them. However, he conceded that, even if the authority were minded to argue about the matter, the Secretary of State should be able to insist on his decision being taken.

The stance of the right hon. Gentleman is eminently respectable. He went on to defend it. In fairness, it is a different stance from that of the Minister, which is murkier and less defensible. I do not want to be uncharitable. I have been more than charitable to the Minister in previous Standing Committees, but I have greater regard for the candour of the right hon. Member for Walsall, South than for his. In a poor and unconvincing winding-up speech, he simply argued by advocacy, not evidence. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) speedily picked up on that. The Minister just said that the Security Industry Authority has the power and responsibility for decisions about licences. That is not supposed to be the business of the Secretary of State.

Clauses 7 and 8 describe the powers available to the SIA that, admittedly, relate to licensing. What makes hon. Members think that the Secretary of State would wish to interfere in that process, or could do so? The answer, which is why my hon. Friends and I are minded to press the amendment, is the broad and potentially all-embracing power that the Government have decided to confer on themselves in the unamended clause.

The hon. Member for Eccles made an interesting point about the admissibility of evidence and proceedings that could be invoked in cases of conflict that go to the courts. I acknowledge that, but we must have an overwhelming concern about what is in the Bill, rather than the utterances on a particular occasion by a given Minister who, by definition, whatever his or her merits and whether he or she is destined to go upwards or downwards, is a here today and gone tomorrow—or the day after tomorrow—Minister. What matters is what is in the Bill. [Interruption.] I am grateful for the encouragement of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden. He has taken many Bills through the House—rather more than any other member of the Committee. I am concerned by the specific reference to ``general or specific directions'' given to the authority by the Secretary of State.

Apart from transparency, scope is the central point about which I am overwhelmingly concerned. The Minister said, in response to the invocation of my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath of the comments of Lord Bassam, that the reference to particular individuals or companies is simply a reference to the power that would be taken to direct an investigation. I should be grateful for the Minister's attention at this point because, if I am to criticise his argument, as I shall, it would be helpful if he would confirm what his argument is.

The Minister seemed to say that there would a power to provide that the Security Industry Authority ``should look at'' a particular individual or company. When challenged by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath, he insisted that the power did not go beyond that: the Secretary of State could insist that someone should be investigated or examined in more detail, but he could not insist on the primacy of his judgment over that of the authority. However, the problem with that is that it is not what the unamended clause states. If the Minister is adamant that the Secretary of State would in no circumstances insist on his view over that of the authority, why does it not say so in the clause?

Mr. Clarke: The reason that I accused the hon. Gentleman of making a mountain out of a molehill—I have difficulty maintaining an active attention when he goes through the matter in such a pettifogging way—is that if he examines clause 1(2)(a), he will note that it states that the functions of the authority shall be

    ``to carry out the functions relating to licensing and approvals that are conferred on it by this Act''.

That is a function of the authority, not of the Secretary of State. That is the point.

Mr. Bercow: Actually, that is not the point. First, let me deal with the nonsense about pettifogging. The Minister ought to understand—let him learn it once and for all—that it is precisely the responsibility of the Committee to scrutinise the Bill in detail. If he is so obviously preoccupied with his ascent up the greasy pole of politics that he does not understand that that responsibility is incumbent not only on Opposition members of the Committee but on every member, it is time that he learned that. That is the first point, of which the hon. Member for Weaver Vale, who frankly does not understand much of what we are debating, does not have the slightest comprehension.

Secondly, clause 1, to which the Minister referred in defence of his position, confers the responsibility on the authority but does not make it clear that it is its exclusive responsibility. Sure enough, responsibilities are granted to and powers are conferred on the Security Industry Authority, but the Bill does not state that the matter is exclusively the authority's concern and that in no circumstances can the directional power of the Secretary of State touch on the exclusive discretion of the authority in granting or not granting licences. If that is how the Secretary of State wants us to understand the matter, it is incumbent on the Government to draft their legislation such that the matter can brook no doubt, but they have not chosen to do so.

12.15 pm

Mr. Lilley: Is my hon. Friend aware that not only does the Bill not exclusively give the SIA that authority, but clause 13 states:

    ``The Secretary of State may by order make provision for local authorities to carry out some or all of the Authority's relevant licensing functions''?

Mr. Bercow: That is a helpful additional point on which I had not focused. It directly cuts across, contradicts and undermines the Minister's claim that these are matters only for the authority. They are matters for the authority, but that is not the same as saying that they are matters only for the authority.

The Minister says that the investigation is all that the Secretary of State has the power to direct. The trouble is that that is inconsistent with the perfectly reasonable point made by the right hon. Member for Walsall, South that the Secretary of State might have information provided to him by agencies that is not available to the Security Industry Authority. On the strength of that information, he might want to advise or direct the authority to grant or not to grant a licence. The Minister said a few moments ago by way of a subordinate clause of a sentence that it was unlikely that information about a particular individual or company would reach the Secretary of State via the intelligence services, although he did not explain why he thought that. I hope that he would accept that it is possible that such information might reach the Secretary of State and cause him to doubt a judgment reached by the SIA without that information being available to it.

If the Minister and his Department have come into possession of information that the SIA does not have, does the Minister not understand that in such circumstances the Department would not be asking the authority to conduct an investigation? In such circumstances, the SIA would not be the appropriate authority to conduct an investigation, because it would be doing so without information that the Secretary of State had and that made him believe that he was in a better position to reach a decision. Why then can the Minister not understand that a Secretary of State might want to insist on his preference, as opposed to that of the inadequately informed Security Industry Authority?

It is perfectly imaginable that such a scenario could arise. Interestingly, the Government, who are breathtakingly arrogant about such matters, are hypersensitive. Perhaps that is because we sometimes attack them, justifiably, with some vigour.

I am perfectly prepared to concede that a scenario such as the right hon. Member for Walsall, South describes could arise. Ministers might have information provided to them that the SIA does not have. In such circumstances, they would not be asking for an investigation to be conducted. They would probably be saying that, given the incontrovertible information that they have, a licence should not be granted: ``Please do not do so'', or ``Thou shalt not do so.'' I am saying not that that is necessarily objectionable but that such a scenario is likely to arise, so the Minister should be prepared to clarify the extent of the power in the Bill. He should not pretend that a situation might or might not arise, or that the Government are proposing to confer on themselves a lesser power than that which they are intent on conferring.

 
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