Private Security Industry Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Simon Hughes: Which significant organisations or individuals recommended the voluntary scheme that the Government are adopting, and which big players were the most important lobbyists for the compulsory scheme?

Mr. Clarke: I cannot help the hon. Gentleman off the cuff, but the Government's overall approach is designed to minimise rather than maximise regulation. The vehicle to carry it out is the better regulation taskforce, to which my right hon. Friend referred. It has been a considerable factor in our thinking on the matter. Certain industries make the case in respect of their particular industries; for example, on Second Reading, we discussed information technology security consultants. Thus I cannot give the answer that the hon. Gentleman is looking for, but that is why we are where we are.

Mr. Hughes: Will the Minister provide an answer to my question soon, either by writing to me or placing an answer in the Library?

Mr. Clarke: I shall provide an answer for the hon. Gentleman and members of the Committee. I cannot guarantee that it will be comprehensive, but I shall give the fullest information that I can. Mostly, it will revolve around the responses to our White Paper.

In conclusion, the arguments that I made in responding as constructively as possible to my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) are essentially the same arguments that I would put in response to my right hon. Friend's amendment to clause 17 and the amendments of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey to clause 15. That is the thrust of my case, so I will not repeat those points. I have tried to set out as clearly as I can the basis of the Government's thinking on that important aspect of the Bill.

Mr. Hughes: In trying to rationalise and order what I say, I shall save my comments about my amendments until we come to the next clause.

Clause 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

The Chairman: Before we move to clause 15, I seek to give the Committee some help and guidance, so that the whole of the Bill can be properly scrutinised by the Committee. We have approximately another 40 minutes this morning and two and a half hours this afternoon, from 4:30 till 7 o'clock. The amendment paper shows that there are 12 clauses, one new clause, two schedules and a number of amendments still to consider. I urge all Committee members to take that into account as they contribute to the debate.

Clause 15

Arrangements for the grant of approvals

Mr. Hughes: I beg to move amendment No. 49, in page 11, line 26, leave out subsection (1) and insert—

    `It shall be the duty of the Authority to secure that there are arrangements in force for granting approvals to persons who are providing security industry services in England and Wales.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 48, in page 11, line 27, leave out from `who' to end of line 30 and insert—

    `(a) are providing security industry services in England and Wales and seek approval in respect of any such services that they are providing, or are proposing to provide; or

    (b) are providing security industry services in England and Wales and are deemed to be acting as a public authority under the Human Rights Act 1998.'.

Mr. Hughes: As the Minister said, the amendment seeks to change the nature of the system that we are considering for approved contractors from a voluntary to a mandatory system. There are two alternatives on the amendment paper: amendment No. 49 simply provides that it shall be a duty of the authority to secure arrangements for granting approvals, and it removes the second part of clause 15; and amendment No. 48 seeks to provide the facility of arrangements generally, but makes the arrangements compulsory for those contractors who act as a public authority under the definition found in the Human Rights Act 1998. One option is that the register would be compulsory for everyone; the other option is that the register would be a discretionary, or opt-in, register, except for those contractors who fall within the realm of public authorities.

An obvious example of the second option was the subject of a major debate in the House of Lords. The debate was about sub-contractors to public authorities, such as the police. It could be a school or a local authority housing estate that was employing people as security guards. It could be any number of other people acting on behalf of a public authority. The reason for the amendment and the definition of a public authority in clause 6(3) of the Human Rights Act 1998 is to ensure that people who were doing a public service job would be compulsorily registered, even though they were a private firm under tendering and contracting-out processes. If one is dealing with a public agency one should know who is involved in it.

Subject to how the debate goes, I shall certainly ask the Committee to vote on amendment No. 48. I hope that it will receive support from both sides of the Committee. I can be brief because the general nature of the argument has been entered into by both the right hon. Member for Walsall, South and the Minister. I understand the starting point, which is that when we move from no system at all to a new system we have to decide whether it should be compulsory or developmental. The Minister argued for a half-way house, in that we are starting with an opt-in system but the Bill will provide for it to become a compulsory system by ministerial decision. I am grateful that the second option is available.

I do not entirely buy the Minister's third reason, which he said was the least important of his three reasons. He said that the Government were conscious of the scale of work. If one sets up an authority and a register, there are more people if registration is compulsory, but it is a relative difference rather than a significant one. Once a system is going, people will be needed to run it and the more applications there are, the more will be processed. I understand the argument, but once one has bitten the bullet and set up all the overheads and the management costs are all in place, it will matter only marginally whether one has a compulsory or a voluntary system.

The Minister's first argument was about whether what we seek to put right is a weighing factor. The Government have come to a clear conclusion. As the right hon. Member for Walsall, South reminds us, the Bill has probably had one of the longest gestation periods of any post-war legislation, although other matters have been hanging around in the Home Office for a very long time.

Mr. Charles Clarke: I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that the lengthy period of gestation from my right hon. Friend's first Bill is entirely down to the Government. We have moved speedily on the matter. Our predecessors moved rather slowly.

Mr. Hughes: I seem to remember that there was one of those 18-year interludes. The Minister would not expect me to argue that it was an interlude entirely of darkness surrounded by two Administrations of enlightenment. That has not been our view.

The Bill has been around for a long time. The Government decided to grasp the nettle and bite the bullet—two cliches in one sentence—and we are grateful for that. Having done so, it is silly only to go half way. My colleagues and I come from a tradition that says that one should not legislate when it is not necessary. If we are to have a system for customer and consumer protection, it should not be a two-tier system. It is like saying that one can register one's car for an MOT test, but it is not necessary. Half the cars on the road would therefore be ones with, for example, unacceptable emissions. It is like saying that people can set up a pub, but that they do not have to apply for licence.

I do not understand the logic of the public policy argument. Here are people providing services which we think should be controlled, but we do not think that it is reasonable to expect everyone to buy into it. As the right hon. Member for Walsall, South said, those with something to hide will be the least willing to register. Therefore, it is not surprising that, among others, the British Security Industry Association and reputable companies such as Group 4 believe that there should be—another cliche—a level playing field. Having the same rules for everyone is the only way to ensure fair competition, consumer protection and a system that is guaranteed to work.

12.30 pm

Mr. Clarke: Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that, with MOTs for cars and licensing for pubs, for example, you are talking about one activity that is clearly definable across the country, whereas with the private security industry, you are talking about a family of different industries, which are related but have different characteristics?

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey might be talking about those industries, but I am not.

Mr. Clarke: I apologise, Mr. Winterton. Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the private security industry is a family of different industries, to which different considerations of criminality and regulations apply, in contrast with the examples that he gave of relatively uniform activity?

Mr. Hughes: I partly buy that argument, although, if we take the passing of the MOT test, there are rafts of vehicles—commercial vehicles, private motor cars and others. There is also a family, albeit smaller, for music, dance and alcohol licences. The situation is not as straightforward as the Minister described.

One might want to say also that certain parts of the industry are more in need of regulation than others. The Minister seems to be saying that the Government are providing an umbrella authority that, in theory, will regulate in one area but not in another. The problem is that that may not happen. Each sector will be different—wheelclamping, bouncers on club doors or people patrolling estates. There will be a voluntary scheme for everyone and no one will have to register, which is the weakness. Had the Minister said that there should be a voluntary system for wheelclamping, bouncers and private security firms on local authority estates, that would have been fine. There will be no similarity, however, which means that we will be left a system in which there is no guarantee that, when contracts are entered into, someone necessarily buys only the registered scheme. It will take a long time—we should consider the British Standards Institution or the building trade for example. There are still huge numbers of cowboy builders, who normally rip off customers. The surprising experience of the consumer industry is that many users of building industry services do not check whether someone is registered as an approved plumber, roofer, carpenter or whatever. As such, the users have little recourse.

Even the travel industry took a long time to reach its standard, although—I might be wrong; I do not pretend to be an expert—it is now almost impossible to travel abroad without using a company recognised by the Association of British Travel Agents. My experience tells me that, if we are talking about consumer protection in areas of criminality, it is better to have a system that does not rely on the intelligence or perspicacity of the consumer to work out whether he or she is dealing with a kosher or approved system or company. I cannot see a great fairness in the Government's approach, given the strength of the views of reputable representatives of industry, who are in favour of compulsory registration, or of some reputable large players, such as Group 4, which the Government have used for security services in the prison sector and elsewhere.

I do not want to labour my wider points, but let me mention a final specific issue. I urge the Government to reflect that it would discredit and be unhelpful to public authorities to allow them to use people who are not registered. The public sector has enough difficulty making choices. It would make life much easier for public authorities if everyone who wanted to work in that sector had to take the prior clearance route. Otherwise, nothing in the compulsory competitive tender system—the best-value debate—will guarantee that the best-value choice will be someone who is registered, even though officers can report and recommend at both local government and central Government level.

I do not want to open a difficult wound, but people might say, as some Tory Members did on a famous issue recently, that they accept the principle but do not want to sign up. To take that view would not disqualify someone from tendering for a prospective contract.

I am sure that we shall return to the matter. I understand the Minister's arguments, but do not find them persuasive. If we do not take this step now, there will be small probability of moving to a compulsory system in the near future, whoever is in government. Large numbers of people will continue to complain that the system has not given them the protection that they expected. Having waited so long and at last seen the Government introduce a welcome Bill, we should do the job properly, rather than doing only half of it.

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