Clause 15 - Arrangements for the grant of approvals

Private Security Industry Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:15 pm on 1st May 2001.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 12:15 pm, 1st May 2001

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.'.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

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.'.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office 12:30 pm, 1st May 2001

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?

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

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

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

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?

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

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.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

If the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey will withdraw amendment No. 49, I will happily allow a division on amendment No. 48. I shall ask him to move it formally at the appropriate time.

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

I understand the arguments that have been made, but they do not convince me. I think that the arguments that I made earlier address the issues. There are differences between the various parts of the private security industry, and we must learn and identify the ill at each stage before moving to a compulsory stage.

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

The Government are obviously trying to concertina the debate. Ministerial conversions happen rarely, and they are even more rare when colleagues have held the line up the road, so I was not entirely expecting one. I do not know whether either the Minister or I will be around to see who is right, but, for the time being, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed: 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. S. Hughes.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 10.

Division number 6 Adults Abused in Childhood — Clause 15 - Arrangements for the grant of approvals

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

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

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

I should like to put two questions to the Minister in relation to clause 15. First, what is the significance and potential application of the words in brackets in subsection (2)(c)? Secondly, in relation to subsection (4), are the regulations to be determined in accordance with the negative or the affirmative resolution procedure?

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

On subsection (4), negative resolution procedure is the right answer. On the significance of the words in brackets in subsection (2)(c), which I am carefully studying as I respond, they simply mean that the conditions that are being discussed apply whatever the situation. The wording is clear:

``such conditions (whether or not connected with the provision of the services in respect of which the approval is granted)''

The conditions need not be associated with the provision of the service in relation to which the approval is granted; they can be more general in character. In my view it is straightforward, but I may have misunderstood a subtle point with which the hon. Member for Buckingham seeks to transfix me.

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

What the Minister says is both true and, of itself, not entirely adequate. He is right that the literal meaning of the words in brackets is clear. I also accept that it therefore means conditions other than those that relate specifically to defined services for which approval has been granted. All I am saying to the Minister, in the politest possible way, is that it would be helpful to have some indication of what those conditions might be.

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

I am glad that I was clear, because I thought that my answer was confused. I am now even clearer that I was clear when I first answered, which is why my natural eloquence, if that is the way to put it, failed me.

The clause is intended to indicate that the conditions that are laid down and contain the approval can deal with any aspect of concerns about a particular organisation. The conditions do not have to be connected with the provision of the services in respect of which the approval is granted. For example, if an approval is being sought to deal in manned guarding, but there are issues concerning the company's dealings in wheelclamping, that could be a consideration in the establishment of such conditions, even if it was not to do with the manned guarding for which the application had been made. I may have misunderstood the point and, as the hon. Gentleman is always so rapier-like, I am concerned not to make a mistake about this, but I think that my remarks are clear.

I was slightly surprised that Opposition Members voted with the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey on the last amendment. I was also genuinely interested to see that sea change in Conservative party attitudes, which is important to note. With that in mind, I hope that clause 15 can stand part of the Bill.

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

I, at 12.43 pm on Tuesday 1 May, am satisfied.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

Obviously, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey is not.

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

I do not want to undermine or undervalue the last statement. Tory satisfaction on the eve of the general election is something that we should all note; if only the hon. Gentleman's colleagues would admit to the same.

Obviously, I sought to amend the clause, but I have failed to do so. However, I may return to the matter with my hon. Friends, and I am grateful for the support of the hon. Member for Buckingham and his hon. Friends. It is clearly better to have this clause, which provides for the opportunity for approvals to be granted, than not to have the clause at all. A half loaf is better than no bread, which is why I shall not oppose the clause's standing part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 15 ordered to stand part of the Bill.