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Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend has referred to the financial aspects of the need to keep bureaucracy low so that the costs of licensing are low and reasonable for small firms. Does he also accept that the regime itself needs to be reasonable? It would be possible to promote a regime so exacting that it would be difficult for small firms to continue. They would be frozen out and that would produce a cosy club of big security firms.
Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend is right. The affordability of the regulatory system and the extent to which it impacts on the bottom line is not the only issue--the psychological impact of the decision to legislate and to regulate is also important. I have often made the point, not least when I introduced a ten-minute Bill on 27 April 1999 about regulations on small firms, that, too often, they give up the unequal struggle against the regulatory leviathan. That is depressing, and it is our fault. Small firms do not necessarily go bankrupt; they simply decide that it is no longer worth the candle. I am grateful to him for pointing that out.
The debate was opened from these Benches in characteristically robust and eloquent fashion by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), who covered the broad canvas of issues that are relevant to the Bill. In particular, and like other Members to whom I shall refer in a moment, he mentioned the frankly evil practices of a great many of the cowboy wheelclampers across the country. I am glad that he did so, and the theme was echoed throughout the debate.
My hon. Friend also made a point about the scope of the Bill and the importance of ensuring that we know exactly to whom it applies. I share his concern that, for example, computer specialists engaged in sensitive work on behalf of their employers or, on a contractual basis, for clients, could find themselves inadvertently drawn into the embrace of the Bill. Ministers give us the impression that that would not be so, but we cannot be sure and we would welcome assurance on the point.
The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson), who, sadly, is not in his place, traced the evolution of the Bill. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is returning to his seat. He had much that was worthwhile and informative to say. I was, however, a little taken aback by one aspect of his speech. In the first part, he was at pains to emphasise that he was not keen on extensive and zealous regulation; in the second part, however, he lamented the inadequacy of the Bill's scope, and said that he wanted further regulation. Never mind: we shall try to square that circle at some stage. He speaks with experience and some authority, and the House accordingly listened to him with respect.
The hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) welcomed the Bill in general, but drew attention to two important points. The first related to the independence of the Security Industry Authority, or what might more accurately be described as the current concern that it will not be as independent as it should be. She rightly dwelt on the power of appointment, and seemed to be keen--as
The hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) brought to bear the perspective of one representing a seaside constituency. He also spoke, with many examples in mind, of the adverse impact of wheelclampers.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield delivered a tour de force in what may prove to be his valedictory address to the House, more than 30 years after he first entered it. He rightly reminded us of the ten-minute Bill--the Security Industry Licensing Bill--that he presented in 1973. He was, if I may say so, relatively relaxed and insouciant about the fact that it had taken 28 years for his wise words and policy recommendations to be translated into practice.
My right hon. Friend made another important point. He said that in no sense should the gradual increase in the numbers and powers of private security industry employees be allowed effectively--perhaps even surreptitiously--to substitute for the legitimate, historic and proper role of the public service called the police. He made the practical point that the genesis of the police force that we now enjoy and wish to preserve was, in fact, the ending of private patrols. It was precisely because of the inadequacy of that system that we developed a more satisfactory arrangement.
The Minister has sought to assuage our concerns by indicating that the Government have no intention of substituting the private security industry for the police force. I hope that he will accept--if he does not, I am afraid reality will prove that he will be obliged to do so--that deeds matter more than words. It is important for us to ensure, in practice as well as in rhetoric, that there is a role for the private security industry, but that it does not seek to supplant or nudge out of the way the public service called the police force.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): Does it not concern my hon. Friend that that is precisely what is happening? The police are expecting more and more people to employ private security firms and to use alarm systems, because, unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer police on the beat to guarantee the safe towns and safe countryside that people have taken for granted in the past.
Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend is right. He knows the truth from bitter experience, not least in his Macclesfield constituency--but that experience is replicated, almost without exception, throughout the United Kingdom. Under this Government, who said that they would support the police, we have fewer police. They bear greater burdens, they are given less support, and they are constantly told that they must do more with less. My hon. Friend has encapsulated that point in his characteristically eloquent fashion.
The hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton) made an excellent speech--it was witty, it was engaging, and it marked the culmination of a long-standing campaign by her to take proper action against wheelclampers. I am well aware that she has asked four parliamentary questions on the subject in this Parliament, between, I think, 7 July 1997--a date of particular significance to me--and 4 February 2000. I think that I was in the Chamber on the occasions on which she asked those questions. I therefore know the feeling with which she speaks on the subject, and I hope that she feels that she had a proper outing today.
The hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) lamented the phenomenon of the cowboy clampers. However, I suggest to him that, in a sense, what we are talking about are the "Del Boy" clampers. They are the clampers who give legitimate clampers a bad name.
The hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy)--only part of whose speech I was able to hear--apparently told the House of his experience as a security guard in, I think, 1991. He made the wider point that he saw quite a few students working part-time in a security capacity while also studying for their exams. I think that he underlined the importance of partnership between the private security industry and the police. However, the relationship must be one of partnership and not one of substitution.
The right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) made one of the finest speeches that I have heard in this place since I was elected in May 1997. He had an effortless command of his subject and I listened to him attentively throughout. I hope that he is not too disappointed that the Government have not paid as much notice to what he has been saying as he had hoped. I am still a little suspicious of him in this matter because, at heart, he is a socialist and I am a Conservative. He believes in regulation and I am rather suspicious of it. Nevertheless, I listened to what he had to say with interest and respect.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) treated us to a combination of historical reminiscence and constitutional exegesis of a type to which we are fast becoming accustomed from him. It was high-calibre stuff and I much enjoyed it.
The truth of the matter is that the Government have made a case for the creation of the authority, the issue of licences and establishment of the new offence of operating without a licence or offering security services without a licence. However, it is very important indeed that we should have a proper debate on the Bill's contents.
The reality is that, ultimately, in the other place 23 amendments were made--three in Committee and a further 20 on Report, covering such diverse but important issues as licensing, the Bill's scope, exemptions from the Bill and the appeals procedure. As we know, there is scope within the Bill for the modification, revocation or suspension of a licence. It must be right to have, for example, the balancing mechanism of an appeals system that is credible and fair and that is seen to be credible and fair. In that relatively brief--I do not say cursory, because
We have to be sure of the independence of the Security Industry Authority. We have to be certain that, in practice, the Bill's provisions will not be a queue for or staging post en route to the substitution of the private security industry for the legitimate and historically accepted functions of the police force. We have to guard against what Lord Cope rightly described in the other place as the "law of unintended consequences". That law operates in such a manner that sectors, companies and individuals who did not think that they fell within the Bill's ambit might subsequently discover that they do, with damage to their businesses, unanticipated costs and implications for employment.
There is also the very important issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath raised in his opening speech of the list of licensed persons. I hope that the Minister will have something to say today on that issue. There may be a good reply on the issue, but it is important that people should be aware of what the issue is. There is intended to be a publicly available list of licensed operators. My hon. Friend raised the legitimate concern that if the list is available, names and addresses will be known. That means that people operating in the sector could be subject to vengeful attacks by people who had fallen foul of them and who bore a grudge.
Little has been said of the related issue of the costs that flow from the Bill, which is accompanied by a frankly pitiful regulatory impact assessment. The summary of the assessment consists of about two paragraphs of breathtaking complacency from the Government. From time to time, the most extraordinary parameters for possible costs are given. For example, we are told that costs for the voluntary scheme arising from the Bill could range from £1 million to £9 million a year. Another cost is put at £110,000--methinks it a trifle unlikely that that cost will be sustained.
One does not need to look into the crystal ball when one can read the book. We talk about fees and charges, but the Government have already increased their estimate of the licence cost from £22 to £40. That is dramatically above the inflation level, and the rise has happened in a very short space of time. Unless there is a more robust, credible and fully explained regulatory impact assessment, the concern must be that eventual costs will substantially outstrip those currently portended.
Important matters remain to be debated and considered thoroughly. Much detail has to be studied. I emphasise to the Minister that I have an on-going concern for which I make no apology. It is that the Government intend to do a good deal of their work in this sector by means of secondary legislation. I referred in an earlier intervention to some of the regulations that we will face. We should subject any regulations that the Government introduce to the affirmative procedure, so that a proper debate can be held. In the absence of such a procedure--for which the Minister has not given a proper justification--we should at least be granted the courtesy of advance sight of a draft copy of the intended regulations.
We need to be assured also by the Minister that a proper period of consultation--of not less than three months--will be devoted to the regulations, and that there will be a similar period of notice of their required implementation. The Government's motives are sound, but we have to be clear that the detail will match the rhetoric.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) made an outstanding speech, in which he pointed out all the weaknesses in the Bill as it stands. He is a formidable performer and could happily have gone on for another hour if we had indulged him, and he only touched on--or skated over--some of his concerns about the measure.
I want to be reassured by the Minister. I hope that he will make a genuine attempt to do that. I own up to the fact that I err on the side of opposition and caution when it comes to regulation. I make no apology for that. I happen to believe that, on the whole, Walter Lipmann was right: in a free society the state does not administer the affairs of men and women, but rather it administers justice among men and women who conduct their own affairs.
We must be sure that we do not over-regulate. The Chancellor of the Exchequer wrote the foreword to "Equipping Britain for our Long-Term Future", Labour's business manifesto issued in April 1997. He stated that a Labour Government would not impose burdensome regulations on business because the Labour party understood that successful businesses had to keep costs down.
I am sorry to say that that pledge has not been honoured. There has been an explosion of regulation. The sea of regulation now facing businesses is greater than any with which they have had to contend previously. We must make sure that the regulations imposed by the Bill are necessary, proportionate and effective. They must be no more burdensome than is necessary.