Private Security Industry Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Clarke: This has been a useful discussion. The amendments would replace what we believe to be a rigorous and flexible set of requirements with a requirement that would, effectively, be weak and incomplete. However, I do not make any criticism of that because the intention, clearly stated by the hon. Member for Buckingham, was to have a probing debate to raise the issue in a way that has been generally helpful.

I will comment on two basic issues: the criteria and the process. Let me make it absolutely clear that the Government are determined—and the legislation sets this up—that applicants will have a fair and impartial process with clear rights of appeal. That is why the authority will publish and consult fully on the criteria, and will produce different criteria for different industries. There will be a full debate.

The criteria will have to deal with the question of criminal records, which was raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South and by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), and clearly set out what form of criminal record will be a disqualification. That will be an important part of the criteria to be published and consulted on.

The criteria will also have to set out clearly the position of training, which we have debated. I make one observation on that debate: a central part of the establishment of the authority is to raise the level and quality of training and skills in the industry, for the reasons argued by my right hon. Friend and by the correspondent of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath. However, I am slightly more defensive of some of the existing organisations than was my right hon. Friend. I met them and discussed the issues with them. They are committed to and support the establishment of the authority. I am sure that the training organisations would recognise some of the criticisms that are being made and believe that establishing a framework such as is in the Bill will enable them to improve the quality of their work. I believe that they would accept some of the criticisms made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South and that there is a need to improve it and lever it forward in that way.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey talked about training and the transferability of qualifications in Europe. Discussions are being held in the European Union about barriers to the operation of a single market in relation to the private security industry. Meetings are taking place, and the question that he raises is an important element in that context. I understand that at some point in the not too distant future it is hoped that the EU will deal with the matter. We shall be in a better position as a result of the Bill to participate properly in that process, which will allow us to take advantage of experience such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South describes of legislation in other EU member states and to ascertain how the matter can be dealt with more effectively.

10.45 am

Mr. Hughes: This is an increasingly important matter, and I am grateful for the Minister's helpful response. I am not up to speed. Is it now normal procedure for a Bill such as this to be passed for information and observation to the Commission in Brussels to state whether it contains anything that might constitute a barrier to competition, which, like the free movement of workers, relates to a treaty obligation that we must uphold? The matter seems to involve both a minimum standard, which may be an EU requirement, and other national requirements. Have we sought EU advice, and if not, could we do so?

Mr. Clarke: I am not a constitutional expert, so I shall answer off the cuff, with the qualification that I may correct myself later. I believe that we do not as a matter of routine give draft legislation to the Commission for comment on such matters, but we have procedures in the House—about which you, Mr. Winterton, will know more—that involve European Standing Committees, for example, to scrutinise particular parts of legislation. I would worry about a proposition to hand our legislation to the Commission for approval.

Mr. Hughes: Just for comment, I was saying.

Mr. Clarke: I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon. I do not know whether we pass legislation as a matter of routine to the institutions of the EU, whether the Council of Ministers, the Parliament or the Commission. I shall find out. I do not believe that we do, and I agree that there might be some merit in doing so.

Mr. Bruce George: At the risk of being appallingly pompous, the answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is that many aspects fall within the pillar of the EU and are exclusively the preserve of national Governments, but some aspects of employment rights fall outside that pillar, and the EU has already passed related regulations on employment.

An organisation that used to be called DG5, in the European Commission, brought together trade unionists and security companies to work out better rules and regulations to recommend to the Commission in the field of employment. I would not have expected permission to be requested for areas that fall exclusively in the domain of Her Majesty's Government, but as some areas fall within European Union competence, some information is relevant to the Commission.

Mr. Clarke: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that information. The operation of the single market in relation to the private security industry is obviously not a matter that falls within the justice pillar but relates to the single market process that he describes. That is why I framed my answer to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey in that context.

A series of issues are raised about Parliament dealing with the matter. Good practice, as my right hon. Friend suggests, is to have a dialogue about such questions to find out how we can move forward. We are not required to check the Bill with the European Commission and are not doing so.

The final point on publishing criteria, raised by the honourable Member for Buckingham, is the definition of a fit and proper person. For the purposes of this legislation, we believe that that well-worn phrase, given the case history that has built up in the way described by the honourable Member for Southwark North, and Bermondsey, is an appropriate one for this Bill. There are different criteria within the security industry than there are for licensees, although they are clearly related. There is a White Paper on whether the law should be changed to reflect the definition of a fit and proper person for the purpose of selling alcohol, as the hon. Member for Buckingham said. If we are re-elected, we will introduce a Bill to put into effect that licensing White Paper.

I do not want to prejudge that debate, but the hon. Gentleman would do better to suggest a change in the phrase ``fit and proper legislation'' in the context of the licensing Bill, rather than saying that the phrase ``fit and proper person'' is inappropriate for this Bill. I take his point about consistency, but we have retained the phrase because it provides a concept of what we are seeking to do in licensing people, and it has a track record, as he said.

Mr. Hughes: In the light of that, will the Minister undertake to re-examine the inconsistencies raised by me and the hon. Member for Buckingham, which would result in this Bill being tested in this way, and the other not?

Mr. Clarke: I undertake to pass on the points about comparability to my colleagues dealing with the licensing legislation, for their consideration when drafting the Bill that we hope to introduce to implement the licensing White Paper.

I have said all I wanted to say on the question of publishing criteria. The hon. Member for Buckingham raised a number of points about the ability of an applicant to influence the process, how details are verified, and so on. They were entirely reasonable points, but I would categorise them as being to do with general good public administration. That is an area in which—for the reasons and examples given—Governments of all parties have not been as rigorous as they should. We are trying to improve that. I give the commitment that the operation of the licensing regime, under a new authority, will establish the kind of processes that he describes.

In addition, there is the failsafe of the appeals process, which we shall debate under clause 11, whereby—if they feel that there has been misadministration or insufficient consideration of their concerns, or that decisions have been taken that are not in accord with the published criteria—individuals may seek redress. The principle that the hon. Gentleman described, of a fair and impartial process with clear rights of appeal, is well established under the Bill. I concede, however, that proper and good public administration of the system by the new authority is crucial. It will be a priority for both the new authority and, I hope, the Secretary of State.

I have endeavoured to answer the points that the hon. Gentleman raised, and I hope that he will withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Bercow: I am in a generous mood today, so I hope that the Minister of State enjoys it while it lasts. I have some very brief points to make in response to what he has said. On his concluding point, I accept that some of the matters that I highlighted essentially relate to principles of good administration. I recognise also that the Government have a vested interest in ensuring, in every possible way, that the Security Industry Authority has good procedures in place. If it does not, it will clearly not operate as effectively as it might, and will not enjoy the confidence that it otherwise would. I have no doubt about the Government's intentions on that front. Before the Bill is passed, however, there must be some specificity about the process of appeal, and the extent to which people will be informed about the reasons for being rejected, should be clearly established. Good intentions are valuable but not enough: they are necessary but not sufficient conditions. The opportunity to have a further debate under clause 11 is welcome, and I hope that members of the Committee will take advantage of it. On training, I am substantially reassured by what the Minister said. The debate was boosted by the contribution of the right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South.

As far as the fit and proper person test is concerned, the most charitable interpretation that I can put on the Minister's remarks is that he was unsighted on what we were arguing. We had not discussed the matter in advance, and he might not have been aware that I was proposing to allude to the licensing White Paper. I do not blame him for that—I am, in the most gentle way possible, a little critical of what he said in one respect. He did what he has done on previous occasions, which is to say, ``We're doing what we're doing because we're doing it.'' That is not entirely satisfactory. In a roundabout way, he was saying to me, ``It may be that we've got it slightly wrong in relation to our proposals for licensing, so if that's what the hon. Gentleman thinks, he should argue it in that context when the opportunity arises. I think that what we're doing is right. I know that it contradicts what we're doing elsewhere, but I think that we're right on this one, and it's the only one with which I intend to preoccupy myself at the moment.''

As we are discussing the Private Security Industry Bill rather than the licensing White Paper, the Minister's point is fair in procedural terms, but I hope that he will accept that there is a feeling in the Committee among those who have spoken—not least the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and myself—that there should be consistency between the two pieces of legislation. If there is not to be consistency, there should be a good reason why a different process is adopted.

However, I do not want to press the point further at this stage. In general terms, I am happy with what the Minister said in reply to what were probing amendments. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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