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Clause 51 - Court security officers

Courts Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:30 pm on 1st July 2003.

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Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath 4:30 pm, 1st July 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 63, in

clause 51, page 25, line 4, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien Labour, Normanton

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 64, in

clause 51, page 25, line 6, after 'conditions', insert

'(including conditions as to good character)'.

Amendment No. 29, in

clause 51, page 25, line 7, at end insert—

'(2A) Regulations under subsection (2) shall require that no person who has ever had any kind of conviction for any kind of criminal offence may ever be considered for any appointment as a court security officer.'.

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

We now turn to the important issue of court security—especially important in the light of the recent, heavily publicised escape of a couple of dangerous criminals as they were about to arrive at the Inner London Crown court. The escape was in no way the fault of the security officers at the court, but I am

sure that it has brought into sharp focus the danger attendant on the security issue at and around our courts. I was particularly conscious of that episode because it took place just up the road from my flat in central London. My wife was watching the news flash that announced that two dangerous men were at large in Newington Causeway, and she wisely delayed her departure from the flat until a while later when, unfortunately for the forces of law and order, the two escapees had got clean away.

Amendment No. 63 is the old traditional amendment that has been tabled before, not only to this Bill but to other legislation. If it is clear that the Lord Chancellor is to make regulations, clause 51 should state that he ''shall'' rather than ''may''

''by regulations make provision as to''

training courses and conditions to be met. I am sure that the Minister will not say that the Lord Chancellor might make, or might think about, regulations; in practice there will be regulations, so the amendment is a small point—although I do not expect the Minister to accept it.

Amendment No. 64 is perhaps a matter of greater substance. In our view, previous criminal convictions should be a bar to employment as a court security officer. In the last Parliament I was fortunate enough to represent my party as shadow Minister with responsibility for the Private Security Industry Act 2001. I have taken a continued interest in that subject, but I know that the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) is probably the greatest living expert on the private security industry—I see the Government Whip nodding in agreement. He has made, I think, about half a dozen attempts over the years to secure a private Member's Bill to introduce proper standards for the security industry, and he was delighted to be involved in that Bill's passage.

Like this Bill, the Bill for the private security industry was dealt with in a constructive spirit. There were genuine attempts from both sides to improve it. The right hon. Member for Walsall, South and I were both at the launch of the new Security Industry Authority, and we felt that things were working well; it seemed that several of his misgivings were being reduced because of the way in which the new head of the SIA was operating.

There is a link between that legislation and this, because one of the purposes of having new security industry legislation was to prevent criminals from working in security. It was on that basis that I table amendment No. 64. It is crucial that we do not run into the problem of somebody who might have had links with crime in the past being employed in that capacity.

Such people might no longer be criminals; perhaps the conviction was relatively minor and happened 20 years ago, and the individual has put it behind them—we are all in favour of the rehabilitation of former offenders. However, in the security industry, blackmail could be used by those who are involved in serious and organised crime, and might want to organise escapes from courts.

If there were something in a security officer's past that he wanted to keep secret, somebody could say to him, ''Unless you help us, we'll have you all over the News of the World,'' or another tabloid. It might be a huge scandal that a person who had had a criminal conviction 20 or 30 years ago was employed as a court security officer.

As a matter of principle, it simply should not be possible to employ someone who has had a criminal conviction in that particularly sensitive job.

If the Minister understands the purpose of our proposal, I hope that he will at least say that he will consider with his officials whether he can suggest some wording that might be an improvement on ours. I hope that he at least understands the spirit behind the proposal.

Photo of Mr Gareth Thomas Mr Gareth Thomas Labour, Clwyd West

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's point about blackmail. Would not importing the proposed requirement into the Bill be rather counter-productive? Would not the mischief to which he refers be more likely to happen in those circumstances?

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

I thought about that point quite a lot when drafting the amendments. I wondered which scenario was better, and came down on the side of the argument that says that no one who has had a criminal conviction should be employed as a security guard. If that were clear in the Bill, the situation described should simply not arise. It is a judgment call, and that is the judgment that I came to. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will accept either amendment No. 29 or a variant of it whose wording may be more appropriate.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

This important part of the Bill merits significant attention. The high level of responsibility attached to the role of court security officer makes recruitment of the right people and effective training essential. The employer, court users and the wider public must have confidence that an officer will use his or her powers and carry out his or her duties in a fair, efficient and responsible way. Effective training and appropriate personal qualities are essential in inspiring such trust. That is an element of the rationale of part 4 of the Bill.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath has spoken to a series of amendments. Clause 51 gives the Lord Chancellor the power to make provision, by regulations, as to training courses to be completed and conditions to be met before a person may be designated as a court security officer. Amendment No. 63 would change that power to a duty, and amendment No. 64 would require that any regulations included conditions as to good character. Amendment No. 29 would introduce a total prohibition on persons with any sort of criminal record being considered for appointment as court security officers.

In many ways, amendment No. 63 seems quite similar to amendment No. 65 to clause 56. We shall reach that amendment at some point, but it could easily have been grouped with this one. The importance of publicly demonstrating that we are recruiting appropriate people to be court security officers is recognised. It is vital that we can reassure

court users, the judiciary and staff that court security officers are suitably and sufficiently trained to enable them to use their powers lawfully and effectively. The Department intends to make appropriate provision by regulations in due course. Those will set out the areas covered by court security officer training and ensure that the conditions of service are considered suitable.

I am concerned about the phrasing of the amendment that would turn the power to make regulations into a duty. It would replace the word ''may'' with ''shall''. Although we fully expect to make regulations on these matters, it would not be appropriate for the Bill to require us to do so. If we changed the word ''may'' to ''shall'', the Lord Chancellor would be required to make regulations covering everything in clause 51, but in reality there may be no need to make regulations on every one of those factors.

For example, earlier today we debated clause 17(5), and I pointed out that no rules had been made under the equivalent of subsection (5)(c). If that power had been a duty, the Lord Chancellor would have been required to make regulations on that point. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome asked about the experience that justices of the peace would have to have had to entitle them to vote in elections.

If the word ''shall'' had been used instead of the word ''may'' in clause 17(5), we would have been required to make regulations to that effect. That is one of the reasons why we have used the term ''may'' instead of ''shall'', because it gives us some discretion.

Photo of Mr Gareth Thomas Mr Gareth Thomas Labour, Clwyd West

Is it not the case that, as a matter of good practice and good governance, the Government should not necessarily have a duty to make regulations? Does the Minister agree with me that it seems rather contradictory for the Conservatives, who so often complain about over-regulation, to require regulations to be made? It is not the first time during the Committee that they have made that sort of point.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My hon. Friend makes a legitimate point. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath was the first to acknowledge that this was what one might call a ''standard'' amendment to be tabled for the Committee stage of a Bill.

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

I entirely take the Minister's point, and that of the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Gareth Thomas). However, I made the point that, unlike the subsection of clause 17 to which the Minister referred, with this provision I could not envisage a situation in which a Lord Chancellor would not be making the regulations. We are discussing important issues, such as the conditions to be met before a person may be designated as a court security officer, and training courses for security officers, and so I assume that there will be regulations. That is why in this case, it would be more appropriate than in some other circumstances to use ''shall'' rather than ''may.''

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

We have discussed that point, but I still err on the side of good drafting and of ensuring that

our approach throughout the Bill is consistent—and I believe that the current drafting of the Bill is correct.

Amendment No. 64 seeks to introduce the requirement that court security officers be of ''good character'', and to include that qualifier in the Bill. The role of a court security officer carries a high level of responsibility, and people would expect such officers to be of good character. We believe that it is inherent and implicit in the position that the person who is appointed will be of good character. We agree that when regulations are made setting out the conditions to be met before a person can be designated as a court security officer, conditions involving good character will rank as a high priority.

It would therefore be superfluous to mention that particular condition in the Bill, when there might be many other equally important conditions concerning what would make a good court security officer, which could be contained in subsequent regulations. I believe that, given the difficulties of defining good character in the Bill, the amendment should be withdrawn.

We believe amendment No. 29 to be undesirable from both a practical and a policy perspective. The reference to

''any kind of criminal offence''

would include spent convictions which, under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, cannot generally be taken into account when assessing suitability for employment, except for employment in a limited and specified number of occupations. Court security officers are not currently one of those exempted occupations.

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

I rather anticipated that the Minister might say that. I therefore ask him to consider seriously, with his officials and his ministerial colleagues, whether that occupation should be one of those exceptions.

I said in my initial remarks that we are all in favour of the rehabilitation of offenders. However, we are discussing the security of courts. If the amendment is not accepted or the employment category not changed, I do not want to see, in a few years' time, an escape that turns out to have been organised by a person who has been accepted for employment as a court security officer on the basis that their serious conviction had occurred a long time in the past.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

One can never predict what will happen in the future, but in framing the legislation we must ensure that we strike the right balance. I believe that, given the strict limitations on the powers of court security officers contained in the Bill, and the vetting procedures that will apply, there is no reason for us to change the attitude that we have taken so far. However, I understand the basis on which the hon. Gentleman proposed the amendment. We appreciate the importance of ensuring that court security officers pass appropriate background security checks prior to appointment, and the hon. Gentleman has raised a significant issue.

There are several methods of carrying out those background checks, and in the future the Department will aim to use the basic disclosure service offered by

the Criminal Records Bureau. Once that is available, it will provide a criminal record check incorporating several levels of disclosure for different types of employment. In the meantime, the Department will carry out checks on all contractors and in-house security guards. All employees and contractors must be subject to the basic check, which will clarify the identity of the person concerned.

The counter-terrorist check must be carried out for all first and second tier Crown courts. In practice, it is carried out on everyone. It includes both a criminal records check and verification with the security services. In addition, the two security companies that supply guards throughout the Court Service are affiliated to the British Security Industry Association, and they are required to complete a 10-year employment history for all employees, together with a formal declaration of criminal record.

The current checks undertaken by the Department are therefore comprehensive and lawful. That will continue to be the case when the current procedures give way to the Criminal Records Bureau. There are thorough, comprehensive arrangements in place that strike the right balance, but keep within the scope of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. On that basis, I invite the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.

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

As I said, I am not at all happy with such an explanation. We shall definitely return to such matters on Report. I shall not take up the Committee's time by pressing the amendment to a Division, but the matter is crucial. We must bear in mind the recent history of problems with the Criminal Records Bureau. In an earlier debate, reference was made to matters that are checked in other countries. A few weeks ago, I was involved in a debate on the Criminal Records Bureau when it became clear that a lot of its work was being done in India by private sector contractors. Concerns were expressed about that. The history of the Criminal Records Bureau is one of the most embarrassing for the Government, and it continues to be so.

I am not reassured by the Minister's words. I know that he is well-intentioned, but there is something serious involved and the interests of court security must be put ahead of the rehabilitation of offenders. I accept that he will talk to officials. It is exactly what I would expect of him, as I know him to be extremely diligent. I advise him to discuss the matter with the right hon. Member for Walsall, South and the people at the new Security Industry Authority to see whether he can table Government amendments on Report to toughen up the Bill.

I stick to the view of those on the Conservative Benches. A criminal conviction ought to be an absolute bar, and I am not yet happy that we have the checks in place to prevent a potentially dangerous criminal from escaping from a court as a result of the fact that somebody who was not vetted thoroughly enough was employed as a security officer. We shall return to the issue, but I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I beg to move amendment No. 132, in

clause 51, page 25, line 7, at end insert—

'(c) requirements in respect of the uniform or badge to be worn by a court security officer to ensure that he is clearly identifiable—

(i) as a court security officer; and

(ii) by his individual name or number.'.

I shall deal with the amendment extraordinarily quickly because, by my reckoning, we now have less than two minutes to spend on each clause that has been selected for discussion today. Amendment No. 132 suggests that the Lord Chancellor may by regulation make requirements in respect of uniforms or badges worn by security officers. There is already sensible provision in clause 51 for the court security officer to be identifiable by means of his uniform or badge.

A person should be able to identify an individual officer. The officers have substantial powers similar to those of a police officer, including powers of search, powers to restrain, exclude or remove persons. When they are exercising those powers, they should be identifiable to the person on whom they are exercising those powers as an individual, so that, if there is any complaint about the conduct of an officer, it can be correctly attributed to a particular officer instead of the generality of court security officers. Not only is it necessary to set out what is required in terms of uniform but an individual number or name should be clearly included so that the officer can be identified.

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

I shall also be brief. The hon. Gentleman may find that there is even less time if the information coming to me is correct because we may be about to have a Division in the House.

I agree with this sensible amendment to require clear identification and I need say no more than that I concur with the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

I, too, will be brief. I understand the hon. Gentleman's point in tabling the amendment, although I emphasise the provisions in subsection (3), which give a measure of protection, although not necessarily with the detail that he seeks.

One of my concerns about the amendment is that it is not appropriate to prescribe in regulations the type and style of the uniform or badge that a security officer wears. That is an administrative matter and not appropriate for that secondary legislative tier. Moreover, subsection (3) makes explicit the requirement that a court security officer acting in the execution of his duty must be easily identifiable as such. Departmental guidelines will be produced for in-house staff and contractual standards for external security officers will specify the uniform, and that badges or other items must enable easy identification. That will be evident to those drawing up the guidelines.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The Minister is going a long way towards what I want, but he has not yet said whether there will be a requirement for an officer to be individually recognisable. That is very important. It exists for police officers and many other officers in uniform. It should exist for court security officers.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

I recognise the strength of the hon. Gentleman's argument, but we have not decided what level of detail should be in the guidelines. However, as

there has been strong representation about the importance of some level of individual identification, whether by name or number, and the hon. Gentleman's comments have been recorded, I will give closer consideration to them when I look at the guidelines.

Photo of Mr Gareth Thomas Mr Gareth Thomas Labour, Clwyd West

People are often confused in court and I know from experience that they often mistake ushers for security people.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

Again, that involves having different uniforms so that security officers are easily identifiable from ushers, but that will have to be dealt with as an administrative matter when the design of uniforms and so on is considered. It is not appropriate for that to be in the regulations and I hope that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome will withdraw his amendment.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I disagree with the Minister and believe that the matter should be covered in regulations because it is crucial. However, I do not intend to pursue it today and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.