Clause 13 - Licensing at local authority level

Private Security Industry Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 1st May 2001.

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Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath 11:30 am, 1st May 2001

I beg to move amendment No. 29, in page 10, line 38, after `Authority', insert—

`and the local authorities for the areas specified in the order'.

The amendment would require local authorities to be consulted, which is a matter about which we feel strongly. It has relevance to a local authority in my constituency, the leader and chief executive of which were amazed when they consulted the Home Office about an effective scheme for nightclub bouncers about 18 months ago, and the Home Office, instead of helping to answer some of the various queries, wrote back saying that they were not entitled to have such a scheme. That was a peculiar response, but I do not hold the Minister personally responsible for that.

A new system is being set up, and I am sure that the Minister and the Committee will agree that it is important for local authorities to liaise closely with the new authority. It would be useful to write into the Bill a requirement for close liaison and prior consultation.

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

I was rather surprised by the hon. Gentleman's example, because that is not the general stance that we try to take. Will he be good enough to give me a copy of the correspondence, so that I can look into the matter and respond in detail on his specific point?

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

I shall ensure that the Minister has all the details from the chief executive of the local authority. I took up the matter at the time, and one of the Minister's colleagues was good enough to say that it was not the normal response of the Home Office, as the Minister rightly said. Perhaps no one vetted a letter that was being sent to a local authority by an official rather than a Minister.

I was asked to raise the matter, but there is a wider point to make. That example merely showed where things can go wrong between the Home Office and local authorities under the current system. It is because local authorities will have an important role under the new structure that we felt that it would be helpful to have something written into the Bill. I hope that the Minister will say that he will keep the matter under review and discuss it with his officials. Even if he cannot accept our amendment today, I hope that he will table an amendment on Report.

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

I ask the hon. Gentleman to reconsider the amendment because, with all respect, he has not fully understood the nature of the responsibility set out in the Bill. It establishes the Security Industry Authority as the central and authoritative body for the private security industry. The authority will have significant duties within the overall framework of its responsibility to the Secretary of State. It will have to consult local authorities about the delegation of its functions, as defined in the Bill, as they will be best placed to discuss the practicalities. The arrangements will be between the Security Industry Authority and local authorities.

I look forward to seeing the correspondence on the issue that the hon. Gentleman identified. It will always be possible and appropriate for a Member of Parliament to bring such matters to the attention of the relevant Minister. There is no sense in bypassing that procedure, and the Government will always want to assure themselves that delegations to local authorities have been properly prepared. It may be that the general liaison arrangements will be between central and local government and that matters will be discussed in a general way.

I want to emphasise that the prime responsibility for the process of delegation lies with the Security Industry Authority, which will discuss with local authorities, both individually and generally, how to proceed. We have discussed the general principle of consultation before, and I can assure the Committee that, as is normal, the Government will consult local authorities, the private security industry and all other interested parties about the details of the process. In fact, it was consultation that led to the White Paper that led to the Bill.

The consultation with local authorities that is the subject of the clause is primarily the responsibility of the SIA. That is why we make the distinction that we do in subsections (6) and (7). I hope that that clarifies the situation and that, on the basis of what I have said, the hon. Gentleman with withdraw the amendment.

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

I hear what the Minister says. However, the clause gives the Secretary of State a wide order-making power. According to subsection (1),

``The Secretary of State may by order make provision for local authorities to carry out some or all of the Authority's relevant licensing functions''.

However, in subsection (6), the one that we seek to amend, the Secretary of State is put under a duty to consult the authority, but not the local authorities that will be given the power. That seems inconsistent. Because there has been difficulty in the past, at least in connection with one local authority of which I have personal knowledge—it might be common elsewhere; I hope not—it would be useful for the local authorities, not merely the main authority, to be consulted before the Secretary of State exercises that power.

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

Is the hon. Gentleman proposing that there should be both a consultative process by the Secretary of State in the Home Office and a consultative process by the SIA? I should like to be clear about that before we come to a decision on the amendment.

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

We are saying that before the Secretary of State exercises his order-making powers under the clause, he should consult the local authorities for the areas to which the orders would relate. It seems a sensible thing to include in the Bill. Nevertheless, as the Minister said that he will keep the matter in mind and will look at the correspondence in due course, we may be able to persuade the Government to table a further amendment at a later stage once he has considered the matter with his officials, so it would not be appropriate to press the amendment to a vote, but I take on board what has been said and I am grateful that he will consider the matter further. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

Photo of Bruce George Bruce George Labour, Walsall South

You almost did not notice that I wanted to speak, Mr. Winterton. I am sure that you did not employ a Nelsonian tactic in failing to look at me through your spying glass. It was merely inadvertent that you did not notice my 18-stone-12 frame.

If an outsider assessed the Bill, he would say that it was all about bouncers and wheelclampers. I do not understand why wheelclamping comes under private security, and some would argue that bouncers—door supervisors—are not strictly part of security either. However, they are, and the matter is in urgent need of reform. I am not convinced that the Home Office's subcontracting the task of licensing door supervisors to local authorities is wise. I hope that if the measure goes through, the Home Office will evaluate how local authorities perform in order to see whether they can—as I should have hoped—be considered to be part of the private security industry, and be licensed and regulated directly by the SIA. That would result in 50,000 personnel paying £50 for a licence, which would greatly enhance the authority's revenue-gathering capability.

One of my concerns is that the licensing authorities of local authorities could be susceptible to party political activity, so judgment that should be legal and rational could be bound up with party politics. I know of an exemplary case, which I will say is hypothetical. A senior politician signs up 40 black cab drivers disenchanted with the way in which the licensing authority has been operating. They are in his political party, and they turn up for a ward meeting to boot out those who are there, and then turn up to a selection conference to endorse that politician. Is there a quid pro quo? Licences are issued, disciplinary action is taken—will political pressure be exerted?

I am pleased to say that, in the case to which I am referring, pressure has been resisted, but the temptation is there. Decisions on licences for local companies and individuals will be made by human beings who are subject to the same pressures as hon. Members, and in many ways to a greater extent. On occasion, those people, be they Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat or of other political allegiances, will be tempted to use political reasons to make what ought to be administrative judgments.

Photo of Ian Stewart Ian Stewart Labour, Eccles

Is not the alternative to my right hon. Friend's analysis that local politicians understand the problems in the locality better than remote civil servants or officers of other authorities? That local knowledge—the understanding that one group of old-fashioned councillors have turfed out another group of old-fashioned councillors—is really important.

Photo of Bruce George Bruce George Labour, Walsall South

My hon. Friend's argument has its attractions, but there are counter-arguments as well. The Home Office has said that, on balance, this is the route that we are going down. I accept that decision; I am merely making a point and will, in no more than four further minutes, make some other points that I hope the Home Office will take into account.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Labour, Doncaster Central

In Doncaster, in terms of the licensing of bouncers, the police work at a local level and know what is happening on the ground. That is very important, and as the crime and disorder partnerships are working increasingly well, it would be a shame to transfer the decision making to national level, where those involved would not have that local knowledge.

Photo of Bruce George Bruce George Labour, Walsall South

I am acquiescent, but not enthusiastic, and would like the measure to be under review. One of my great concerns is that we are talking about at least 50,000 personnel. They have, putting it at its best, an image problem. In reality many of the people protecting the public inside and deterring the public outside are part of the drugs scene, and have their rake-off of the profits. That is why it is incredibly lucrative for an individual if he or she wins a contract to be a bouncer or a door supervisor or for a company if it wins a security contract . As a result, a number of gang wars are taking place in our cities, and it is quite right that the Government are stepping in and doing something.

Photo of Ian Stewart Ian Stewart Labour, Eccles

Now my right hon. Friend and others will see the significance of my short comment about philosophy. It is important that we positively promote the activities of women as door stewards and create a training and standards-based environment.

Photo of Bruce George Bruce George Labour, Walsall South

Women must search women. One cannot have a lecherous 50-year-old male performing an intimate body search on a woman attending a disco. However, there are dangers. I met the head of security of a company, a very attractive woman, who was asked by a drunken yob at a door, ``Do you believe in equality, missus?'' She said yes, and he punched her on the nose, saying, ``There you are, I would have done that to a male.'' It is a dangerous job.

All the bad publicity is directed towards the bouncers, but for the money that they get, those who are honest and professional are in a very exposed and dangerous situation. Although they often mete out severe punishments, there are many door supervisors who have been viciously attacked and need some protection via the legislation. In the absence of any security legislation before now, the only way in which local authorities could meet the problem was by using the public entertainment licence process, in order to fill a vacuum.

I shall now rattle through a few points that will be boring but relevant. I am not certain what role the local authorities will play under the proposed system. Ideally, it should be one of enforcement, with licensing and standards to be met by supervisors in the SIA. The Economic and Social Research Council funded research into local registration schemes that revealed that they suffered several problems under local authority licensing. For instance, there is a problem with reciprocity when, often at great expense, door supervisors have to register in different local authority areas, undergoing vetting and training for each. The standards varied significantly among the schemes, and it was possible for some door supervisors to be granted registration in one area but not another. The study concluded that enforcement regimes were often chaotic, and that in many places revocation of registration was rare. A widespread system of informal practices to get round registration has emerged, including the forging of licences.

The Home Office commissioned research—the safer door project, which was about door registration schemes and was conducted to develop best practice—from a gentleman named Walker. He identified best practice for a national scheme, but did so in the context of there being no national licensing structure for the private security industry into which supervisors could fit. He also identified the need for a national scheme.

I agree, but argue that licensing and the setting of standards should be pursued through the SIA. Local authorities have a role to play in the enforcement of the provisions through their general licensing function, enabling them to receive applications for licences and make decisions on their approval and issue, among other matters. Even according to national standards, differences between schemes may still be created, which will lead to further problems such as those that I have identified.

I ask the Home Secretary not to junk what the Home Office has decided but to look at it carefully. Some licensing authorities have poor standards. It is crucial that the Home Office gets it right on the issue, as there could be a great danger to the paying public and people living or wandering in the vicinity of a nightclub. I merely ask the Home Secretary to give mature reflection to some of my points to see where, if he sub-contracts to local authorities to undertake licensing, he should minimise that role. He should ensure that syllabuses are determined nationally by the SIA and not left to the vagaries of local authorities, some of which are good and some of which are bad. The trainers must be subject to approval, so that their training schemes are good.

The Home Office should carefully monitor the first couple of years of the operation of a legitimate local authority licensing scheme, to see whether the old bad habits are replicated in the new system. The Home Office must lay down strict standards. It should not minimise the role of local authorities, nor give them a great deal of discretion. Local authorities should be allowed to be the agents of central Government, not freewheeling organisations that can replicate the practices that have led to the Government's wanting to take a stronger hand in the process.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath 11:45 am, 1st May 2001

The right hon. Gentleman is on to a good point. As he and others may remember, we expressed concern on Second Reading that there might be too great a role for local authorities. The dangers of corruption—people being ``got at''—to which he referred are clear. We had a different solution. Rather than the Government's proposed new authority doing more nationally, we suggested that the system should be much more like that for liquor licensing, with more of the duties and powers exercised by magistrates.

Magistrates have successfully exercised such powers over many years in relation to liquor licensing, because it is far more difficult for them to be ``got at''. In this country, there is no history of corruption by magistrates, whereas sadly, in some cases, there has been such a history in local authorities.

I recognise that there are many success stories for local licensing schemes. I referred to one in a local authority in my constituency: Surrey Heath has had a successful nightclub bouncer registration scheme. Nevertheless, the Government have decided to go down a certain route, and we felt that it would be better to introduce a consultation element, which we suggested in amendment No. 29. We withdrew that following the Minister's helpful remarks, but I want to put on record our concern that the Government are making too great a move in the direction of local authorities, which can, as the right hon. Gentleman said, be ``got at'' in some areas. The Government have been persuaded to take the appeal mechanism to the magistrates court, but not to remove the power to delegate to local authorities.

I hope that the Minister recognises that the matter must be kept under review. If the right hon. Gentleman's fears, which we in Opposition tend to share, are borne out in reality, we hope that the Government—or a future Conservative Government—can reconsider the matter and, if necessary, decide that it might be better to have it dealt with by local licensing benches and lay magistrates, as happens with liquor licensing.

Photo of Ian Stewart Ian Stewart Labour, Eccles

Does the hon. Gentleman not understand that his over-emphasis on what can happen in terms of corruption at local government level could lead to an anti-democratic position? Such matters must be kept in balance. From time to time, there is a small amount of jiggery-pokery at local government level, but it is dangerous to argue that that could a be reason for not allowing local government a role in this issue.

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

There is an issue of judgment. The hon. Gentleman has made it clear that he is on one side of the divide, but we are on the other because a history of what he delicately referred to as ``jiggery-pokery'' does not exist for lay magistrates. When talking about having things done effectively and properly, we have always supported the independent role of the lay magistracy. The Government have made their view clear and come to a judgment. We will see what happens if and when the Bill becomes law, and I will listen with interest to the Minister's response.

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

We have taken a view that I support, which is that the right level for initial decisions is in the local authority. Of course, local authority members and officers may be open to influence and corruption, but there are ways of dealing with that. By and large, their record is good and is getting better. Better scrutiny, auditing and external assessment are taking place, and there is an appeals process. We must remember that the system is about activities going on in different parts of the country. It is better that those elected to represent the community take the initial decision about the appropriateness of a licence. We strongly believe that that should happen at a local level. The authority will exist—we assume—to maintain a consistency of standards, and I hope that other action by the Government and authorities will ensure that.

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

I begin by paying tribute to Andy Walker, to whom the right hon. Member for Walsall, South referred, who was funded by the Home Office, as police officers sometimes are, to examine particular problems and make proposals. I met him and read his report carefully during the preparation of the Bill.

I will give the assurance that I think is sought that not only we but the new authority will keep the matter under review.

In essence, we were faced with three options, and we carefully considered each of them. The first was to leave the matter entirely to local authorities, and many of them, although not the majority, are working in those areas. The second was to establish an SIA bureaucracy that is able to reach into every community in Britain and license directly. I should add that we considered the magistrates option, but not at length, because it presented similar problems to those that arise in relation to local authorities. The third option—and, as you would expect, Mr. Winterton, we chose the third way—was the approach set out in the Bill, giving the SIA the power to establish the licensing process by dealing with the issues of syllabuses, training and standards.

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

I was wondering whether to say syllabi or syllabuses and I decided on the latter to discover whether a pedant would intervene. I am glad to say that the sprat that I laid caught the mackerel—and it must be said that it is a fine mackerel. The syllabi, or syllabuses, the training and the raising of standards will be established by the SIA. The local authority's principal role will be to process and to make certain key judgments.

I agree with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton) and the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey about the ability to deal with corruption in the local authority context. That problem is getting better, but the local authority should take decisions in that regard on the basis of a national framework. The clause addresses the question of how that will evolve. In practice, precisely the kind of review that my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South has mentioned will take place. Different local authorities will adopt different approaches and methods, but the principle of consistency will be promoted by the proposed approach.

I conclude my commendation of the clause by reinforcing the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central, that the local crime reduction partnerships, in which the local authority, the police and often—although not as often as I would like—the local magistrates are participating, provide the correct framework within which to deal with city centre issues such as those that we have debated.

Photo of Bruce George Bruce George Labour, Walsall South

My opinion of local government is coloured by my experiences of my own local authority. However, in general, it has a good record with regard to regulating door supervisors.

My question—to which an answer might not be available at present—is about local authority regulation of fire safety and security personnel at pop concerts. I have been to many such concerts to look at how local authorities supervise them. Indeed, I had to see Tina Turner twice, just to check whether my initial analysis was correct. Is the Minister satisfied with local authority regulation with regard to security, crowd management and safety at pop concerts that can be staged in venues that range in capacity from 500 to as many as 100,000 people, as was the case at Knebworth, where I suffered by watching Oasis perform? That is not the greatest way to spend one's time. [Interruption.]

Is the Minister satisfied that the regulatory structures for the oversight of the security and stewarding of events that might be attended by as many as 100,000 people are covered adequately by the legislation? Will he need to examine further the question of stewarding to discover the answer to that?

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

I should point out that my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) wanted to put it on the record that Oasis is a great pop group—or rather was a great pop group. I do not think that my colleagues would like the implications of my right hon. Friend's remarks to go unchallenged.

There are serious issues about the relations between local authorities and the police in stewarding such events. The Association of Chief Police Officers has recently produced new guidelines on dealing with such matters, and it is important to keep the issue under close review, which I assure my right hon. Friend that we will. I cannot give an off-the-cuff answer to how the matter currently operates, but I accept and agree with his point that it is problematic. I hope that the Committee will accept the clause.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

Before I put the question, I always seek to help the Committee. I did O-level Greek and A-level Latin, and I can tell the Committee that ``syllabuses'' is the English word. I am sure that Hansard will minute that.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 13 ordered to stand part of the Bill.