Clause 10 - Licence conditions

Private Security Industry Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 1st May 2001.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 10:30 am, 1st May 2001

I beg to move amendment No. 50, in page 8, line 33, at end insert—

`and may consider any complaints made to the Authority by members of the public against the licensee.'.

I wish you, Mr. Winterton, and all colleagues here assembled a happy Mayday. It used to be an innocent day of pleasure, I understand, but politicians have clearly taken over too much.

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

In the light of the hon. Gentleman's practices on previous Committees on which we have served, will he tell us of the innocent pleasures on which he has spent his time on Mayday during the past 20 years or so?

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman replies, may I welcome the most charming Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department? I am sure that she will add considerably to our debate today.

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

I join in your welcome to the Parliamentary Secretary, Mr. Winterton—a Mayday bonus. The only thing I remember as being specifically a Mayday event was the rather establishment event at a university—of which I was not a member—of getting up early in the morning to walk to a bridge and listen to a choir singing on the top of a tower, which I gather still happens in some city up the A40 on Mayday mornings.

The amendment is simple. It concerns the licensing provisions of the Bill and would write a complaints procedure into subsection (2), formally registering that it should be a duty on the licensing authority to consider any complaints made to it by members of the public. At the equivalent stage in the House of Lords, my noble Friend Lord Thomas of Gresford raised the issue of the lack of a complaints procedure for the public against licensed or approved persons or companies. Similar amendments were moved on Third Reading.

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

I am slightly uncertain about the scope of the amendment. Under its terms, would the licensee be entitled to know the identity of the complainant?

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

That is a proper question, but the amendment does not itself answer it. A proper complaints procedure should allow a complaint to be made, for the person who made it to be known to the person complained against—the licensee—and for the licensee to be able to rebut that claim before any decision is taken. I should certainly be unhappy with a procedure that did not allow disclosure of the information. I can envisage circumstances in which the authority might rule that it would be better that an individual was not known by name, but the nature of the evidence should certainly be known.

The clause deals with the modification or revocation of licences and licence conditions, and the criteria for making decisions about them. The amendment would add a complaints procedure as well. The Committee should consider briefly whether we want to include it in the Bill or whether we should be satisfied with assurances in the record of the debate. That was the response given by the Minister in the House of Lords, and it was perfectly reasonable in that context.

I understand that the Government's view is that there must be an established and effective complaints procedure. We believe that it would be better to include it in the Bill but not to include the detail about it. What goes in a Bill and what does not is one of those issues that we debate often. The Bill is not huge, and the clause is certainly not overly long. I ask the Minister and his Department to consider again whether the Bill should provide for a complaints procedure as well as for the licensing authority and the criteria for granting and modifying licences. People who read the Bill would easily understand, without having to look elsewhere, that there is a procedure for complaints. The provision could be added and the detail introduced later. I hope that I have been clear and relatively brief.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I join in welcoming you back to the Chair for our proceedings this morning, Mr. Winterton, and welcome all members of the Committee.

If the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) presses his very sensible amendment to a vote, my hon. Friends and I will support him, because we think that it would be useful to include the provision in the Bill. It is not necessary for me to take up any more of the Committee's time.

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

As the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said, there is no serious point of substance between us on the issue. The Government agree that the effective discharge of the authority's duties to licence only fit and proper persons will inevitably mean that it will need to establish an effective complaints procedure. The authority will need to be able to listen to and, if necessary, investigate complaints that are made against anyone seeking a new licence or a licence renewal. It follows that the authority must also have that facility when considering whether to modify or revoke a licence. Indeed, complaints made by members of the public are likely to be a prime motivating factor for such revocation or modification procedures.

We have discussed on several occasions the authority's general duties to keep under review the industry, the operation of the licensing system and the legislation. It will need to keep its ear close to the ground to know exactly what is happening, and complaints will be an important contribution to the authority's discharge of those responsibilities.

For all the reasons that have been given by me and by the hon. Gentleman, the Government will build a complaints procedure into our planning for the establishment of the authority. However, for reasons that he himself has argued on numerous occasions, we do not believe that it is necessary to amend the legislation. It is better to have less legislation rather than more, and it is not necessary to add the power to the Bill. As he said, our debate parallels the debate in the other place, but I hope that the assurances that I have given will allow him to withdraw the amendment.

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

I am grateful for the support of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) and for the Minister's general acceptance of my points.

I am conscious that there are not serried ranks of Opposition Members here, although they are being significantly and qualitatively supplemented as I speak. I was none the less minded, because this is important and I am trying to be selective about when votes are forced, to ask the Committee to divide on this matter. I am now fully persuaded by the arrival of the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), because I hope that he will support the amendment. As the Minister knows, I believe that where matters are alterable on a regular basis, they should not be on the face of the Bill. That is common sense. Here the statement that there ought to be a power to consider complaints would not need to be altered. That is a statement that would stand. It is only the procedure that would be subject to variation.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 4, Noes 11.

Division number 4 Adults Abused in Childhood — Clause 10 - Licence conditions

Aye: 4 MPs

No: 11 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

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

I beg to move amendment No. 51, in page 8, line 36, at end insert—

`(4) The Authority may refuse to renew, revoke or suspend a licence if it has reasonable grounds for being satisfied that the licensee—

(a) has supplied information in or in connection with the application for the licence or its renewal that was knowingly false or misleading;

(b) has contravened any provision of this Act or regulations thereunder; or

(c) is no longer a fit and proper person to provide a security service.'.

Again, I concede, this a matter that has been aired before. It is in the nature of a two-Chamber Parliament that matters aired in one place sometimes gain credibility and persuasiveness as they move to another. That also gives the Government the chance to think again. A disciplined system as outlined in the amendment is needed to ensure that those who supply wrong information and are caught later can be dealt with and have their licence revoked. I am sure that many people will test the system and try to get through it and then be found not to be who they claim to be or not to have disclosed previous convictions.

Things also come to light that call into question someone's fitness or propriety to do a job. We need a clear procedure and I should like to give a practical example from a parallel walk of life that may ring some bells with hon. Members. Coincidentally, a court hearing only last week at Tower Bridge magistrates court in my constituency concerned a market stall licence holder's appeal against the local authority's withdrawal of his licence. The authority meets in committee to deal with market traders' licences and it came to the view that he was not a fit and proper person to hold one.

The man came to my surgery as a local business person, and I agreed to look into the case. I saw the committee papers, and it was not a party political matter: members of both my party and the Labour party sat on the committee. In the end, I took the view that his case had sufficient merit to be supported. Previous allegations against him had resulted in court proceedings, but they were dismissed and he was found not guilty of the charges. The controversial aspect was whether those matters could be prayed in aid in the argument about whether he was a fit and proper person to hold a licence. A further issue was whether the conduct of his father, the previous trader, could be regarded as relevant.

My view was that those matters had been dealt with and settled. The trader was in danger of losing his livelihood as a result of matters that had arisen since the disposal of the allegations. Before the court proceedings, however, the committee had seen the chronology of his time as a market trader and all those matters listed in gory detail. My view is that the committee would have taken them into account. Its view would have been coloured, and its decision may well have been influenced. In any event, the local authority decided to withdraw the licence, but the magistrates court upheld the appeal.

The question is what makes a fit and proper person, and the answer is relatively subjective. Breaches of regulations here and there, which may not of themselves be serious, may be added to a view taken by the authority's officers. In this case, the comparable authority is the local council.

I tabled the amendment because a procedure is needed to regulate renewal, failure or refusal to renew, revocation or suspension. People need to know that procedure and the ground rules, and it is better to have something setting out the fact that such a procedure exists. The other reason is that there must be a procedure whereby anyone who thinks that there is cause for a licence to be revoked or suspended knows how to feed in that information. He or she may want to do that privately at the beginning by saying, ``Look, I'm very unhappy about this. I've no idea whether you've had other complaints, but if this conduct is not a one-off, I don't want this person to have a licence.'' For example, there may be allegations of racist or sexist behaviour, and minor incidents might be cumulatively important.

If Ministers give assurances only to the Committee, which is a perfectly proper way of responding to the amendment, what assurance can we have that the Security Industry Authority will, by its procedures and regulations, implement the will of Parliament and the expressed concern of both Houses? What is the procedure for hon. Members to see the secondary legislation, which may not be regulations, but in a lesser form, such as guidance or rules, when the SIA is set up and starts to get its act together.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 10:45 am, 1st May 2001

Of course, no one should be the hapless victim of Chinese whispers, tittle-tattle or the vagaries of the rumour mill, but it is not entirely clear from the hon. Gentleman's remarks whether the committee meeting to which he referred in support of his argument took place in public or merely in private. Does he agree that it is of the essence that, wherever possible, matters should be publicised and there should be transparency? There should also be the opportunity for people who have been unjustly vilified to take action in response, including, if necessary, recourse to the law.

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

I agree. Just for the record, the meeting took place in public. My complaint was that it included in the papers before the adjudicating authority evidence and material that had been dealt with before and should not have been available. That is like evidence of previous unproven allegations being made available in a court case.

There is a common willingness across the Committee for the authority to have the power that the amendment would give it. If the Minister rejects the amendment, what assurance can we have that such a power will be available and that, before it comes to a conclusion, the authority will have some wider approbation than just its own for its proposals?

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

Once again, I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and if he wants to press the amendment to a Division, my hon. Friends and I will support him. For the reasons that he gave, it would be useful to have the matters set out in the Bill.

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

This is a rather different case from the previous amendment. It is not so much a question of assurances as of examining the reasons that the SIA might have for refusing to renew, revoking or suspending a licence. The clause simply refers to clause 7 and the licensing criteria contained there. The amendment sets out three specific examples, in paragraphs (a), (b) and (c). However, there are other potential examples and I will give a couple to illustrate why the SIA might decide to revoke or refuse a licence. New information might come to light that demonstrated that a licence holder no longer met the licensing criteria, and criminal cases might take place, which would mean that the person did not fulfil the definition that we described of a fit and proper person.

We ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment, not because—as with the previous amendment—we agree with the principle but disagree technically on whether it should be in the Bill, but because we can envisage circumstances that are not encompassed in paragraphs (a), (b) and (c), in which it would be appropriate for the local authority to refuse to renew, to revoke or suspend a licence. That is the fundamental reason why the wording in subsection (2) is the right approach, and the breadth in relation to clause 7 arises.

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

I understand the argument, but the Minister's second example is covered by paragraph (c), so he has given only one other circumstance that has not been included in the list so far.

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

It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman thinks that my second example is covered by paragraph (c). I can see his point—a new criminal record could be considered as being in that category—and I do not mean this in an unhelpful spirit, but his point illustrates the difficulty of having a tightly defined list of criteria according to which a licence is refused or revoked, rather than a simple reference back to the licensing criteria set out in clause 7.

I accept the hon. Gentleman's other point, which was reinforced by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), about the right of individuals to know about the situation and reasons for decisions, and to have transparency. I can assure the Committee that the SIA will have a procedure to ensure that licensees receive in writing the reasons for any decision made under the clause, so that they can examine them. Then, if they want to challenge the decision under the law, they will have material with which to make a judgment on whether to do so.

More generally, I assure the Committee that the authority will work under the law of the land as set out in the Bill, and as with other such authorities, everyone will accept that the law is paramount. If my giving reasons in writing helps to clarify that and provide assurance, I am happy to do so. I urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment, for a reason that is different from the one that I gave for rejecting the previous amendment: the definition set out in it is too narrow. The authority will have to take account of all the considerations set out under clause 7 about which licensing criteria are to be considered.

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

I accept the Minister's argument, given that, for all we know, this may be the last complete month that he is at the Home Office, or at any Ministry, depending on the electorate's view. I do not want to give him too hard a time when he came so close to defeat in the previous debate. I would not want to make the Government any more nervous and ruin his reputation, so in a minute I will ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

I would just like one point to be clarified before I do that. If the Bill becomes law in this Session, how does the Minister envisage that the authority, or the Government, will publicise the proposed procedure in consultative form? What say will Parliament and the interested parties have in that second stage of the procedure?

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

The general issues of timing are dealt with in clause 26. I do not have anything particular to add to that.

I can assure the Committee that we will publish consultative proposals on the procedures for comment by all interested parties before they are finally enacted. That will, of course, include the ability of the House itself to comment on the situation. We have said throughout that having a proper consultative process, to which everyone in the industry is committed, is an important aspect of the effectiveness of the legislation. That is why we will take that approach.

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

That is helpful and will reassure outside interests as much as Committee members. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.