Clause 14 - Register of approved contractors

Private Security Industry Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 pm on 1st May 2001.

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

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am grateful for the ruling and explanation that you have just given, Mr. Winterton. I am not a classicist and I am happy to defer to your superior knowledge, and that of those who advise you.

The clause is part of an important set of clauses relating to the approved contractors register. Subsection (3)(e) contains a reference to

``the conditions of the approval.''

Will the Minister confirm that, in cases in which individuals are registered to provide the same services, there will be no difference in the treatment of such individuals? It will help the Committee if he describes the types of conditions that he envisages, and how they may vary from one case to another. For example, if an individual is registered to provide only some of the services that fall within the rubric of the Bill, what form will the conditions take? Will he give examples of other instances in which a person is registered for the provision of a wider range of services? An explanation or enlargement on subsection (3)(e) would be useful.

The Minister will be aware that subsection (4)(b) states:

``securing that such publicity is given to any modification or withdrawal of an approval as will bring it to the attention of person likely to be interested in it.''

That is probably an innocuous provision, but will he explain the types of circumstances that he envisages? Is the significance of the subsection that people who ordinarily use the services of a person who is registered under the terms of the clause would be such individuals who would be notified of a withdrawal or modification? Precisely how would the individuals or groups of people who were to be so informed be decided, and what form would the publicity take? Will it be standard, has it been decided, does it await decision, when would notification occur, and in what form would it be learned?

Subsection (5) refers to the imposition of a fee that the authority considers appropriate. What do the Government have in mind?

On the strength of my brief inquiries, I am happy to rest my case, and I look forward to the Minister's response.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

Most of the hon. Gentleman's points were focused on subsection (3)(e). The conditions are a general reference to any other conditions that the authority is empowered to attach to approvals on the register.

Subsection (4)(b) relates to the authority's ability to notify through the trade press, for example, any change that has occurred. It is not an injunction to use a particular form of publicity but an empowerment to enable the authority to deal with the matter. We do not have any proposals for a particular approach to publicity. We consider that to be a matter for the authority.

I cannot say at the moment what level of fee will be involved, but I imagine that it will be low. We envisage that, as I suggested earlier in response to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, the register will principally be electronic and will therefore always be current. It will be regularly updated, and people will have access to it. The fee may be extremely low, or even nugatory, but we do not as yet have a proposed amount. It depends on the practical issues that arise. I urge the Committee to accept the clause.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The Minister helpfully answered my second and third questions, but I was slightly less comfortable with his response, as I shall accurately describe it, to my first inquiry. It seemed to amount to saying that the conditions of the approval are the conditions of the approval. That is not only tautologous but unhelpful. However, I suspect that further and better particulars on the conditions that the Government have in mind will emerge in due course, and I shall be beady-eyed on the subject at a later stage.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

The example of an approval that has just been suggested is that a particular code of practice would have to be adhered to by a contractor in particular circumstances.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

That is helpful, but I still believe that there may be scope for giving us further information at a later stage of our deliberations on the Bill. On the strength of the answers that I have received, and content as I broadly am with this relatively unexceptional clause, I rest my case and do not dissent from the Minister's comments.

Photo of Bruce George Bruce George Labour, Walsall South

I am sorry to disappoint you again, Mr. Winterton. Perhaps I should learn some Latin to meet your approval.

The issue of approved contractors encompasses clauses 14 through to 18. I have not the slightest intention of making speeches on all those clauses. I believe that the points can all be subsumed in a four-minute speech on clause 14. I promise not to speak on any of the others, or on my amendment No. 5, under clause 17.

This is a cop-out. The idea of asking companies whether they are to be subjected to additional scrutiny and saying that they will be given a little badge at the end of it is nonsense. Whoever dreamed it up and imposed it on the Home Office wants their collective head reading.

A company is more than an amalgamation of people. It seems bonkers to license individuals but to let the entity for which they work choose whether to be subject to self-approval. Good companies will go through the process of approval, but bad companies will not—until they are compelled to do so. Bad companies will hide behind words by saying that they have been licensed, meaning in essence that their personnel have been licensed, when they have not voluntarily submitted themselves to approval under the Government's ideas. That is truly wrong.

I share the anxiety that has been expressed about excessive regulation of companies, but the private security industry is different from ordinary firms, in which no public safety issues may be at stake. Most reputable firms will be queueing up to be regulated by the authority. There are many jurisdictions throughout the world, some not known for their liking of excessive bureaucracy, that license the companies involved. For example, Hong Kong and most of the states in the United States, especially Florida and Texas, are not known for imposing unnecessarily hard burdens on their local industry. In western Europe, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden fall into that category, as do all the states in Australia. It is nonsense not to include all the companies in all the sectors and to say to them, ``You as a company will be subject to approval and will have to prove all sorts of factors, such as the competence of the directors, the chairman and the senior management—that they are working in the right premises, have the proper insurance and meet the strict criteria.''

In the United Kingdom, one may compare the private security industry with other sectors of the economy. Under the Council for Registered Gas InstallersCORGI—scheme, all gas installers must be registered. In a wide variety of industrial sectors of the United Kingdom, firms are subject to varying forms of special regulation. Regulation applies to agriculture, aviation, banks and building societies, electricity suppliers, financial services, the gaming industry, the gas suppliers, the insurance firms, the meat processing industry—although it has not been applied well enough in that case. The list goes on: telecommunications, television and radio broadcasting and the water industry are all subject to intervention to protect the public, and the companies in almost all those cases must be regulated.

I asked the Library to do research on my behalf, which I will willingly forward to the Minister, investigating company obligations in the financial services sector. I have been told in great detail that the companies themselves must be regulated—not voluntarily. That includes companies providing insurance and banking, as well as those in the financial services sector, credit licences companies and employment bureaux. All those companies are subject to scrutiny and approval, so that if the company fails to meet the standards it is not issued with a licence.

I cannot understand why the private security industry, which has more than its share of criminals, charlatans and rogues, should be allowed to get away without companies being licensed and registered. If the Minister will not accept an amendment to impose the duty for all companies to be licensed, I hope that his successor will persuade the Home Secretary and the authority that the voluntarism enshrined in the clauses should be junked as quickly as possible and that the better regulation taskforce should be asked to regulate and advise other sectors more effectively. The security industry will come of age only if the principle of voluntarism is replaced by compulsory regulation and security companies fall in line with other companies. I hope that eventually, when the legislation is enacted, there will be a swift evaluation and what is now voluntary will become compulsory.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

I was almost on the verge of making a point of order to get your guidance on how to proceed, Mr. Winterton. As my right hon. Friend said, a number of clauses deal with the points that he makes. If you agree, I would like to deal with the arguments now, although the amendments tabled to clause 17 by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and by my right hon. Friend all address much the same point.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

I am very happy that the Minister should deal with those arguments now, in the hope that some self-discipline will then be shown by all members of the Committee.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office 12:15 pm, 1st May 2001

I have to say to my right hon. Friend and to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey that the point is real and serious and was rightly made on Second Reading. We have established a process that is set out in clause 17 and specifically allows the Secretary of State to turn the voluntary scheme into a compulsory one, if necessary, but a decision to do so would be taken only following a recommendation from the authority and after exhaustive and extensive consultation with the industry, the police and other interested parties.

Two propositions led us not to opt for the compulsory route recommended by my right hon. Friend. The first is the question of the wrong that we are attempting to right. What is the extent of the criminality—against which the Bill is principally focused—in particular sectors of the industry? The conclusion that we came to—and we were pressed by the better regulation taskforce—is that criminality undoubtedly applies to certain sections of the private security industry. For those sections, the existence of criminality—my right hon. Friend spoke earlier about door stewards and drugs—is overwhelming, and the need to assume powers undeniable. In other sectors, however, no one could imagine any such criminality emerging in the future.

That is why we set up a process to review the circumstances. I can tell my right hon. Friend that criminality has been at the core of our investigations. I would be interested to know what he believes, but we were convinced of the existence of criminality and of the need for a compulsory approach to deal with certain sectors but not others, and that has led to the structure of the Bill.

My right hon. Friend asked about the worth of self-regulatory schemes. Again, different schemes apply in different parts of the industry. Are the schemes genuine or sham? Are they a reality? How do they operate? Our general disposition—and this is probably the only area of disagreement with my right hon. Friend—is to prefer a self-regulatory scheme that is properly scrutinised under a truly independent authority to a compulsory process further down the line.

Those are the two main considerations that led us to adopt our present course. A third more minor consideration was the scale of work once the authority was established. We debated such considerations in relation to other aspects of the Bill but they are less important in this particular respect. I hope that that explains why we adopted the course that we did.

I want to put it on record, as I did on Second Reading, that it is one of the key responsibilities of the authority to deal with the matters raised by my right hon. Friend. When a case arises that the police, the industry, politicians or the authority believe warrants a compulsory approach, the Bill contains the powers for the Secretary of State to adopt it. Clause 17(1) states:

``The Secretary of State may by regulations provide that persons of prescribed descriptions are to be prohibited from providing prescribed security industry services unless they are for the time being approved . . . in accordance with the arrangements''.

My right hon. Friend's amendment proposes ``shall'' instead of ``may'', but we believe that we should move forward steadily, making proper assessments as we go.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

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?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

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.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

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

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

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.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

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.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

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