Private Security

– in the House of Commons at 6:17 pm on 14th June 1988.

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Photo of Bruce George Bruce George , Walsall South 6:17 pm, 14th June 1988

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the regulation of the private security industry; and for connected purposes. I am pleased that, after three long statements and many points of order, I at last have the opportunity of trying to convince the House of the need to accept licensing in the private security industry. This Bill is probably closer in time to an Adjournment debate than it is to Question Time.

I introduce my Bill to establish a system of public licensing, to replace the present wholly unsatisfactory system of partial self-regulation. The Bill's origins date back to the unsuccessful attempt by the present Secretary of State for Employment to introduce a system of public licensing—with the Security Industry Licensing Bill. I introduced a Bill in 1977 and, having been so patient, now have the opportunity to try again 11 years later. My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) tried unsuccessfully last year. I must also compliment the efforts made by Members of another place, such as Lord Willis and Baroness Phillips, who have been trying to pass similar legislation in that Chamber.

The security industry in its broadest sense is enormous, probably employing 250,000 people. It has grown because of the growth of crime, because of new threats such as terrorism and drugs, and because of the enormous increase in counterfeiting. Technology has spurred it on. Police numbers have not grown as many people would want them to, and the private security industry is filling the vacuum.

The industry is painfully easy to enter and profits can be high. These factors have led to a proliferation of companies. No doubt the industry will survive well into the next century, and I have no desire to see it terminated. However, I want to see a proper framework within which the Government can establish the industry on a proper footing.

The number of companies is unknown. I looked at the Yellow Pages for London and found that there are 400 companies working under various categories of security —and that is just for central London. There are companies offering guard services and cash in transit services, and companies providing security equipment. There are companies providing store detectives; there are security consultants, and others offering VIP protection. Some companies are getting into the areas of exotic professions such as the hiring of mercenaries, bugging and other forms of industrial espionage and in-house security.

There has been an enormous expansion of an industry that remains outside the scope of the House. There is much that is right in the industry. It contains many thousands of honest, industrious people trying to do a good job in difficult circumstances. The overwhelming majority are honest and hard-working. It is a dangerous job and the chances of a security officer, particularly one involved with cash in transit, being killed are significantly higher even than those of the police.

I want to see the industry developed effectively and efficiently, so that it provides a proper service to those who use it. I want to see improved conditions of service and employment for the many people who work in it. I want to minimise the likelihood of those who have serious criminal records getting into the industry, and I seek to establish accountability.

When one asks what is wrong with the industry, most people point to criminality. In the Brinks-Mat robbery, £26 million of bullion was knocked off. A decade ago, the Purolator company suffered a £2 million robbery, the money being taken by a criminal who was employed for a few weeks and used his experience to rob the company. There was a case a couple of months ago of a reputable company which hired a security guard working in a van. He zipped off with £30,000. A newspaper report said: A worker at the mill said 'It was almost comical; the guard left behind was jumping up and down in a state of shock. He just kept on saying 'My mate has done a bunk with the van."' That is funny in a way, but it is also very worrying that the industry has people with serious criminal backgrounds or people who have little interest or competence in the industry.

I am concerned about low efficiency and poor performance. Very few companies have a good training programme. Three days is the average and the overwhelming majority of companies conduct no training at all. Turnover can be as high as 100 per cent. and a recent report said that that was the case in 45 per cent. of the good companies. How can we have an efficient industry when there is such low morale, low wages and a 100 per cent. turnover? I am worried by the low public esteem and the poor relations with the police, who regard the industry in many ways with indifference and contempt. In many cases that is deserved. The poor end of the industry damages those who are trying to do a good job. While many have expressed anxieties from the civil liberties standpoint, others have used the "private army" argument. I have not, because the industry is too inefficient to constitute a serious collective threat to the state.

A system of self-regulation is exercised by the British Security Industry Association Limited. It has a small inspectorate, and although the large companies belong to it, the overwhelming majority of companies do not. There are now more members than there were four years ago, but at that time a former head of the inspectorate of the BSIA said it was possible that fewer than 0·1 per cent. of guarding companies belonged to the BSIA. In some respects, the BSIA is doing a reasonable job, but I cannot accept that a limited company, a trade association, should have such an important responsibility for regulating the industry. However, it regulates only part of the industry and the companies that are not affiliated to it are the ones that I am most worried about.

What model of regulation should be followed? It should not be self-regulatory, nor should it be regulated by local authorities, because they have little surplus capacity. It cannot be regulated by the police, because they do not have the resources. I would much prefer the semi-anarchic status quo to be superseded by licensing by the Home Office. There are numerous examples of licensing abroad. It is carried out in Canada, most states in the United States and in most European countries. We have a precedent in the United Kingdom in part III of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1987, which licenses security services in Northern Ireland.

There are many examples of other United Kingdom professions that are regulated by statutory authorities. We have bodies for gambling and for broadcasting and employment. Betting shops are regulated in that way, as are consumer credit agencies, nursing homes and professions such as doctors. Why should taxi drivers be subjected to statutory control while people who protect lives and millions of pounds worth of property are totally immune from any serious system of regulation?

There is a great deal of support for and some opposition to my proposals. Criminals have no reason to support them and the Home Office has little sympathy. I distinguish between the two groups: one is purely criminal and the other is totally inert. The Police Federation of England and Wales supports licensing and the International Federation of Security Associations and Private Investigators seeks an improved system, as do some companies in the BSIA. However, the Home Office is opposed. It does not like quangoes, but prefers self-regulation and is not convinced that there is adequate evidence of criminality.

A private security licensing authority set up by the Home Office would not simply be a gatekeeper laying down standards of wages and training and so on. I want to see the Licensing Authority acting as a catalyst for reform.

The case for the reform of the security industry is overwhelming. One day, the Home Office will be compelled to act, but there will probably have to be a crisis before it acts. How much better for it and for us to prepare for that eventuality now and not assume the typically British response of reacting after the crisis.

I urge hon. Members to support the Bill. The question of who guards the guards is very important. I hope that approval of the Bill will help to settle that question. It has been 10 years since I last introduced such a Bill. I appreciate that Ministers from the Home Office are present in the House and I hope that I shall not have to wait another 10 years for another opportunity. I hope that the Home Office will take up the cudgels and that we will see a proper industry, accountable and efficient and serving the people who work in it and the companies themselves serving the consumer.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Bruce George, Sir Ian Gilmour, Mr. A. J. Beith, Mr. Bruce Grocott, Mr. Keith Speed, Mr. Stuart Randall, Mr. Neil Thorne, Sir Anthony Beaumont-Dark, Mr. Richard Shepherd, Mr. Doug Hoyle and Mr. Merlyn Rees.