Private Security Industry Bill [Lords]

[back to previous text]

Mr. Bercow: Of course, no one should be the hapless victim of Chinese whispers, tittle-tattle or the vagaries of the rumour mill, but it is not entirely clear from the hon. Gentleman's remarks whether the committee meeting to which he referred in support of his argument took place in public or merely in private. Does he agree that it is of the essence that, wherever possible, matters should be publicised and there should be transparency? There should also be the opportunity for people who have been unjustly vilified to take action in response, including, if necessary, recourse to the law.

Mr. Hughes: I agree. Just for the record, the meeting took place in public. My complaint was that it included in the papers before the adjudicating authority evidence and material that had been dealt with before and should not have been available. That is like evidence of previous unproven allegations being made available in a court case.

There is a common willingness across the Committee for the authority to have the power that the amendment would give it. If the Minister rejects the amendment, what assurance can we have that such a power will be available and that, before it comes to a conclusion, the authority will have some wider approbation than just its own for its proposals?

Mr. Hawkins: Once again, I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and if he wants to press the amendment to a Division, my hon. Friends and I will support him. For the reasons that he gave, it would be useful to have the matters set out in the Bill.

Mr. Charles Clarke: This is a rather different case from the previous amendment. It is not so much a question of assurances as of examining the reasons that the SIA might have for refusing to renew, revoking or suspending a licence. The clause simply refers to clause 7 and the licensing criteria contained there. The amendment sets out three specific examples, in paragraphs (a), (b) and (c). However, there are other potential examples and I will give a couple to illustrate why the SIA might decide to revoke or refuse a licence. New information might come to light that demonstrated that a licence holder no longer met the licensing criteria, and criminal cases might take place, which would mean that the person did not fulfil the definition that we described of a fit and proper person.

We ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment, not because—as with the previous amendment—we agree with the principle but disagree technically on whether it should be in the Bill, but because we can envisage circumstances that are not encompassed in paragraphs (a), (b) and (c), in which it would be appropriate for the local authority to refuse to renew, to revoke or suspend a licence. That is the fundamental reason why the wording in subsection (2) is the right approach, and the breadth in relation to clause 7 arises.

Mr. Hughes: I understand the argument, but the Minister's second example is covered by paragraph (c), so he has given only one other circumstance that has not been included in the list so far.

Mr. Clarke: It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman thinks that my second example is covered by paragraph (c). I can see his point—a new criminal record could be considered as being in that category—and I do not mean this in an unhelpful spirit, but his point illustrates the difficulty of having a tightly defined list of criteria according to which a licence is refused or revoked, rather than a simple reference back to the licensing criteria set out in clause 7.

I accept the hon. Gentleman's other point, which was reinforced by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), about the right of individuals to know about the situation and reasons for decisions, and to have transparency. I can assure the Committee that the SIA will have a procedure to ensure that licensees receive in writing the reasons for any decision made under the clause, so that they can examine them. Then, if they want to challenge the decision under the law, they will have material with which to make a judgment on whether to do so.

More generally, I assure the Committee that the authority will work under the law of the land as set out in the Bill, and as with other such authorities, everyone will accept that the law is paramount. If my giving reasons in writing helps to clarify that and provide assurance, I am happy to do so. I urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment, for a reason that is different from the one that I gave for rejecting the previous amendment: the definition set out in it is too narrow. The authority will have to take account of all the considerations set out under clause 7 about which licensing criteria are to be considered.

Mr. Hughes: I accept the Minister's argument, given that, for all we know, this may be the last complete month that he is at the Home Office, or at any Ministry, depending on the electorate's view. I do not want to give him too hard a time when he came so close to defeat in the previous debate. I would not want to make the Government any more nervous and ruin his reputation, so in a minute I will ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

I would just like one point to be clarified before I do that. If the Bill becomes law in this Session, how does the Minister envisage that the authority, or the Government, will publicise the proposed procedure in consultative form? What say will Parliament and the interested parties have in that second stage of the procedure?

Mr. Clarke: The general issues of timing are dealt with in clause 26. I do not have anything particular to add to that.

I can assure the Committee that we will publish consultative proposals on the procedures for comment by all interested parties before they are finally enacted. That will, of course, include the ability of the House itself to comment on the situation. We have said throughout that having a proper consultative process, to which everyone in the industry is committed, is an important aspect of the effectiveness of the legislation. That is why we will take that approach.

Mr. Hughes: That is helpful and will reassure outside interests as much as Committee members. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 11

Rates of duty for recovery vehicles

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South): I noticed a look of dismay when I rose. It is 28 minutes since the proceedings began, and I have restrained myself so far. I hope that the dam has now been breached and water will flow more freely.

I am not convinced that the appeals mechanism, straight from a refusal by the SIA to a magistrates court or the High Court, is appropriate. There could be 100,000, 200,000 or even more applications subject to a licensing process. I hope that companies eventually will be subject to compulsory licensing. There will then be a lot of people heading to magistrates courts all over the realm and SIA officials will be run ragged from Manchester to Walsall to Newcastle.

I do not understand why we could not have an appeals committee within the SIA, separate from the personnel department, perhaps headed by a senior judge, and involving those not taking part in the normal process of the regulatory authority. Does the Human Rights Act make such a process impossible? If an application were turned down, for whatever reason, within the time constraints, the applicant would write off to the authority or to an independent body within the SIA. Perhaps the Minister might say that only then would the applicant turn to a magistrates court. If members of the Committee are struggling with the complexities of the Bill, and we have not even seen the hundreds of pages of regulations that will ensue, how can a group of magistrates make a decision on whether a licence shall be approved, especially if some of the information is exceedingly confidential and may be based on intelligence sources?

Unless there is an overriding argument under the Human Rights Act, deep consideration should be given to a simple procedure by which the whole process could be expedited. It could be very fair. The Minister is not only taking no prisoners, he is not taking any amendments. I hope that, even at this late stage, it might be possible to have a more efficient and fairer system and to keep it away from magistrates, who are neither interested nor competent to make a judgment in this case.

11 am

Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East): That is outrageous.

Mr. George: They are not competent, because they are overburdened with functions. They will have to read the legislation. They will have to do all sorts of things and this is not an appropriate matter for them.

Mr. Hawkins: I profoundly disagree with the right hon. Gentleman. My concern about the Bill was not in the direction that he has just suggested, but more that magistrates should have a greater role. As we pointed out on Second Reading, and as I have often said to the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, there is a danger not only in that so many magistrates courts have closed during this Parliament, but in that the Government have seemed to move, in relation to liquor licensing, away from the lay magistracy—with all the expertise that it has built up and all its independence from the licensed trade—towards a system of local councillors dealing with the matter.

We believe that lay magistrates should have a central role, so we agree with what the Government are proposing. We see no difficulty along the lines described by the right hon. Gentleman. Magistrates courts have experienced clerks to advise the lay magistrates on the nature of the law. That has always been the case. We want that to continue. Has the Minister had any further thoughts about the possible confusion that we described on Second Reading between the role of councillors in relation to licensing and what we regard as a sensible appellate role for lay magistrates, with possible further appeals beyond the magistrates to the Crown court?

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 1 May 2001