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Column 927A recent report prepared by the Dutch Ministry of Justice on the European private security industry has been used by European employers and Euro-Fiet, a federation of European trade unionists, as a basis for discussion on the licensing and regulation of the private security industry across Europe. The report concludes :
"Britain is the only country (of the 18 countries surveyed) without any legislation. In most European countries there is some form of legislation. A notable exception is Great Britain. In all European countries except Britain authorization requirements and operating conditions are imposed."
But not, I emphasise, in this country.
The Government's philosophy of antipathy to licensing is well known beyond the private security inidustry. Their antipathy to regulation of the industry is clearly expressed in a recently published, but not widely distributed, report entitled "The private security inidustry : background paper." Paragraph 25 says :
"Market forces operate. Inevitably, users of the industry get what they pay for The Government would not wish to intervene in a way which relieved users of security companies of their responsibilities for setting and monitoring effective contracts with these companies. It is ultimately for users to ensure that the company they choose is competent and reliable, and to include strict requirements for employee vetting, training, supervision and performance in their contracts."
It is wrong to argue that the people hiring the private security firm would be familiar with the organisations set up by the industry, that they would know the performance of the companies that were members of those associations, or that they wouild be familiar with the Manned Services Inspectorate. If they wished to purchase a security system--I am having one installed in four hours' time, which is not the reason for the debate but is an indication of its topicality for the George household--they would be unlikely to be familiar with the term NACOSS--the National Approval Council for Security Systems--which is the supervisory association for security systems.
To impose on potential hirers of security companies the obligations to be knowledgeable about the technical intricacies as well as performance and competence is asking a great deal. Taxi drivers have to prove competence and honesty ; surely the same should apply to personnel who will guard property and lives. It is wrong to rely on market forces and knowledge of the free market.
The industry has grown in leaps and bounds. We can trace its private detective origins to the mid-19th century. Locksmiths go back many centuries before that. Guarding--which is what I am largely, although not exclusively, talking about tonight--goes back to the early 16th century when men were first paid by private individuals to guard private property. There was the Watch, which was made up of men working on a rota basis. Later, people who were part of the rota appointed substitutes to work on their behalf--generally speaking they were the unemployable. The author Henry Fielding said of the watches, which were disparagingly called "Charlies" :
"They are chosen out of those poor, decrepit people who are from their want of bodily strength rendered incapable of getting a living by work."
The bad odour that surrounds the private security industry is not a phenomenon of the late 20th century. The impetus for reform came from the City of London. I accuse the Government of turning back the clock on policing by almost a century and a half.
In the pre-policing era, if one wished for security and the protection of life and property, one had to rely on one's own endeavours. The municipality employed guards, but
Column 928they were generally pretty ineffective ; banks hired their own guards for the transportation of money ; people who lived in private homes or groups of homes hired private watchmen. All these measures were rendered superfluous and marginal by the establishment of the modern police force.
When society and the state assumed responsibility for policing, the private sector atrophied. Now, regrettably, the public cannot find the remotest guarantee of protection of life and property from the police force, because its numbers have not grown commensurate with the growth in crime. The inevitable consequence is the increased use of the private security industry, which now operates in areas that were hitherto the responsibility of the police.
Private individuals hire companies to install burglar alarms. Hospitals, and even schools, employ their own security guards. There is an enormous growth in security for the home, for factories and for shopping malls. Only last weekend I heard of a private security firm in Solihull called Rentacop. It patrols a private estate and proudly boasts that its security operation will relieve the police of the great responsibility of patrolling that housing estate.
The area from which my parents come in south Wales provides a further example of how the public are frightened, not by the perception of crime, but by the reality of crime. Residents in the district have set up more than a neighbourhood watch ; there is a rota system in which two people patrol throughout the night, with a third person manning a telephone. There has been a levy on householders to raise money to buy a mobile telephone. That measure has had the support of the police.
In south Wales, there has also been a growth in aggressive vigilantism, which has led, in one case, to loss of life. We have seen the emergence of hell's angels and the terrifying evolution of self-help security in the era of do-it-yourself policing. I do not regard that as a model of security to which we should aspire. I would be terrified at the thought of the privatised security industry de facto, and eventually perhaps de jure, operating alongside the police--with the police responding to major crimes and the private security industry increasingly taking on tasks that were previously carried out by the police.
The Government have deliberately encouraged the growth of the private security industry. The Government have also encouraged the private sector to take on responsibility in prisons and for the guarding of immigrants. Before the Minister says it, I know that that policy started in, I think, 1978. The Criminal Justice Act 1991 contained further inanities such as the privatisation of prison escorts and court security. The private industry is lapping up those developments.
The private security industry has been enormously advantaged by the Government's inability to control crime--it is the principal beneficiary of that failure. I shall not dwell too long on criminal statistics, which are published annually, but the latest report for 1991 said that there had been an annual increase of 6 per cent. in the number of notifiable offences recorded by the police between 1981-91. For crimes of violence against the person, there was an annual increase of 7 per cent. ; robbery, 8 per cent. ; burglary, 5 per cent. ; criminal damage, 8 per cent. ; and other offences, 10 per cent.
We are all aware of the percentages of crimes that take place as opposed to those that are recorded. The latest
Column 929report "Criminal Statistics England and Wales 1991" Command 2134 published by the Home Office shows that recorded burglaries rose by more than 20 per cent. It says :
"Robberies rose at a faster rate than all other main offence groups in 1991 with a 25 per cent. increase."
The staggering increase in crime has led people who are unable to rely on the police, as they did in the past, to fall into the willing hands of the private security industry. The industry is adaptable. It sees a commercial imperative and seizes further opportunities. A further reason for growth in the private security industry is not simply the increase in the crimes but the new crimes that are coming into existence. That has led to the industry prospering.
I am not opposed to the private security industry. There are those who see me as an enemy of the industry. It is quite the reverse. I recall giving written evidence to the Home Secretary, Lord Whitelaw, in 1979. In the foreword to my report, I said :
"The industry is important and will develop further in the public interest as well as the interest of the companies, their employees and the consumers of security services only if the parameters of their activities are set by Government, minimum standards are laid down and entry is controlled. I pay tribute to those thousands of competent, trained, honest and dedicated people who man many security operations. They face a danger often more serious than that faced by the police. Armed criminals increasingly have, as their targets, armoured vehicles. Lives have been lost and individuals injured, even maimed, and all this for a miserable wage."
I deny that my solution is other than in the interests of the private security industry. If the industry is prepared to press for regulation, eventually the Home Office may relent.
We are talking about an enormous industry. It is much larger than the police, if one takes it in its broadest sense. It has a turnover of £2 billion per year--one report suggests six billion ecu. We are talking about manned security ; security guards in armoured vehicles ; retail security ; designers, installers and maintainers of alarms, locks, safes and security equipment ; security consultants ; those engaged in security storage ; access control ; security printing ; office security ; private investigating ; VIP protection and security in places of entertainment. This is an enormous industry and one which will prosper fully only when it is operating within parameters laid down by legislation.
What is wrong with the industry at present? The first problem, but not necessarily the principal problem, is the penetration of the industry by those with serious criminal records. The Home Office dismisses that as alarmism. I recall a programme called "Punters" on BBC radio after the last general election. I thought of writing in and asking, "Could you find out why the Home Office is so hostile to the concept of licensing?" However, I was beaten to it by a guy from the north-east who was angry at how easy it was for him to come out of gaol and find a job in the private security industry. He was advised by a cellmate to join a specific company. It is easy to get into the industry.
Paragraph 55 of the sixth report 1989-90 of the Select Committee on Defence, of which I am a member, says :
"We cannot however overlook the weight of evidence presented to us on the private security industry, which demonstrates its inability to ensure that it does not employ proven criminals or those with criminal intentions."
Column 930The chief constable of North Wales, who was at that time chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers crime committee, briefed the Select Committee on Defence, and in its report the Committee said :
"From this briefing and from information on particular cases which have been supplied to us, it is evident that there is a very serious problem with the calibre of people employed by private security firms, arising in part from the employment of guards with criminal records."
The Minister will be aware of the leaked report from the Association of Chief Police Officers in 1987. It identified from a limited survey 609 firms that had given the police cause for concern. Another report by the association in 1990, prepared at the request of the Home Office, found 168 instances of staff, owners, managers and directors of private security firms being arrested or charged with serious offences. I understand that the police are still looking for a former Securicor employee, Eddie Maher, who hopped it with £1 million. Securicor has put up a reward of £100,000.
Despite all that, the Government deny that there is a problem. I have bulging files on crimes committed by private security guards. Of course, they are in a minority, and it would be wrong for me to castigate a large number of honest people and taint them with criminal intentions. However, that minority is worrying, because it demon-strates that it is painfully easy to enter the private security industry. A recent report published in "Police Review" was prepared by a guy called Graham Birch, who went into the industry to seek to prove the point that he wished to make. He asked :
"How easy is it to be employed as a security guard without any vetting, so gaining access to property to steal, or plant a bomb if so inclined? My research has shown that often it is frighteningly straightforward."
I shall deal for a few moments with the case study of the growth of crime and how it affects the private security industry. Shopping centres are guarded by private security companies, and that phenomenon illustrates the range of crime that such firms have to deal with. They include car park crime, risk of fire--accidental or arson--ram raiding, a crime that is euphemistically called shrinkage, bilking, credit card theft, armed robbery, racial harassment and attacks, terrorism, extortion and kidnapping.
Those crimes are examples of pressures on the private security industry, and I am afraid that in many cases and for a variety of reasons the industry does not measure up to the task. One of the reasons for that is the lack of any obligation on the industry to have a decent training regime. The bigger companies rarely invest more than three days in initial training on the job. How can one expect people to function as effective security officers after such a short period of training? The overwhelming majority of the personnel in the private security industry do not have three days--or even three hours--training.
A recent report shows that we have probably the lowest percentage of trained guards in the European Community. Training schemes in the contract cleaning industry are infinitely better thought out and more comprehensive. The British Institute of Cleaning Science manual shows that the cleaning operator's proficiency certificate is infinitely preferable to anything in the private security industry for the training of personnel. If the security services involved in cleaning can embark on such a path, I only hope that the private security industry will do so.
There have been improvements in, for instance, the City and Guilds and the security industry training organisation.
Column 931Last year, I presented a national vocational certificate at Olympia ; I believe that the British Standards Institution is doing a great deal of work, as are our universities and colleges. Progress has been made over the past decade, but only for companies that wish to subject themselves and their employees to a training regime. How often do such schemes involve middle or top management ? In a number of American states, unless the principals of a company can prove that they have qualifications in the private security industry, they are not allowed to function. If that happened in this country, most private security companies would be driven out of business. Criminality and gross inefficiency are two of the problems involved. It is not surprising that inefficiency is rampant : pay is usually very bad. GMB/APEX is one of the unions that have made a great deal of progress. We are talking about good employers who pay a decent wage ; but let us envisage a situation in which a good company--company A--puts in a bid for a contract. It pays a decent wage ; the personnel are properly supervised ; there are proper communications and proper holiday pay. The company takes out a good insurance policy, so that if one of its personnel sets fire to a factory, compensation will be possible. Company B is a cowboy outifit with low wages ; the guys must work 70, 80 or 90 hours a week, and receive poor holiday pay, poor supervision, poor uniforms and no insurance.
In many cases, the hirer will opt for the cheapest bid. Almost inevitably, price competition means that quality will suffer : in most cases, good companies cannot compete with the rubbish, and are compelled to lower their standards to stay in business.
Turnover can be 100 per cent. in many companies ; hours can be long, because the wages are so abysmal. Performance is often rubbish. The Defence Select Committee inquired into a company which will remain nameless : it was referred to simply as "serial 46". Our report concluded that that company represented one of the most appalling stories that we had heard in the last 10 years. The Committee has mounted four or five inquiries into the private security industry, as it pertains to the Ministry of Defence.
The company had a contract with the MoD's procurement executive in north London. According to the report,
"For a period of over a year, from early 1989, the company received a series of formal warnings, following complaints of too high a turnover of staff, not enough staff always provided, staff not always wearing uniform and staff coming on duty without having been through the due processes'.
"To cap this litany, there were on more than one occasion cases of vandalism committed by the guards, including the smashing of windows. The Director of MoD Security unfolded a horrifying tale of inefficiency, idleness and absenteeism. The company was given, in effect three months' notice in November 1989, and this contract was prematurely terminated on 20 February 1990. The firm was not replaced immediately, as there were no available alternatives."
We concluded that the fact that the company's
"security guards should be unable to prevent occasional criminal damage on dispersed civilian sites was understandable, if regrettable. But that they should themselves indulge in an apparent spree of vandalism on a Ministry of Defence site ; that it should not even be an isolated occurrence, but one matched by employees of other companies at other MoD sites ; and that the MoD should not be able instantly to remove the security guards for lack of a viable alternative beggars belief."
Column 932The performance of the industry is often grossly sub-standard. The Government cannot wash their hands of performance and say that it is purely a matter for the market to determine.
I have talked about criminality, poor performance, absence of accountability, low public esteem, which stretches from indifference to amusement, and poor relations with the police. I have not given the argument of private armies because I feel that it is invalid. I do not see Group 4, Securicor or Security Express marching down Whitehall to remove a Government, however attractive that might appear at present. There is not the will and there is not remotely the competence. Besides, a large percentage of such firms are unionised, which would probably have an effect the opposite of that which I have said.
The Government's approach to all the problems has been minimalist. They have been hostile to statutory control, favouring
self-regulation, which is so discredited in other sectors of industry and commerce. Self-regulation is an oxymoron. It is merely self-defensive companies banding together to do the least possible to stave off external criticism and Government action.
Up to 1980, the Home Office was indifferent to the private security industry. I managed to squeeze out of the then Home Secretary, Merlyn Rees, a Green Paper on security that turned out to be a hatchet job on my concept of regulation. Since then, there has been collusion between the Home Office and the private sector, particularly the British Security Industry Association Ltd., which has encouraged a seemingly endless system of acronyms. Private security rivals only the Ministry of Defence in the production of acronyms. BSIA established MSI in 1982, then the Inspectorate of the Security Industry a few years later. We had SSI, the Security Systems Inspectorate, in 1987 and NSCIA, the National Supervisory Council for Intruder Alarms, became NACOSS, the National Approval Council for Security Systems. We also saw IPSA establishing the BRSB and the establishment of SITO. To my mind, that amounts to another acronym--SFA.
The Government established a working group to consider ways of improving self-regulation. The committee that they established came up with the predictable and intended result, namely, ways of improving self-regulation. From whatever angle we look at self-regulation, it has been unsuccessful. It is fundamentally flawed. It is an improvement on what happened before, but it is grossly inadequate. The present system excludes many companies and tens of thousands of employees who are not part of any system of self- regulation. The motive force is the interest of the bigger companies and their professional leadership. The Government have admitted that inevitably users of the industry get what they pay for. The Government consider that issues such as training and wages are fundamentally matters for the industry and its customers. That is a fundamentally flawed argument.
The Government's route is not the way forward. It is for the Government to accept their responsibility for establishing the parameters within which the industry operates. I have tried on several occasions to introduce a Private Security (Registration) Bill. I had all-party support. The Bill would establish a regulatory authority and a registration council. The Bill provides for--
Sooner rather than later, a concept of statutory regulation and licensing will be accepted. It will come about because more and more companies in the industry will see licensing and statutory control as the way forward to establish their legitimacy and wipe out unfair competition.
Jim Harrower, chairman of Group 4 Securitas, said recently that his company has been arguing for statutory control for 20 years. IPSA, the International Professional Security Association, which is closely linked with the BSIA--the British Security Industry Association Ltd.--in a new regulatory authority, is basically in favour of statutory control. Perhaps the House will take more interest in the private security industry than in the past. Eventually, public opinion will require the industry to be regulated. The creation of the internal market will provide a logic and impetus that will persuade even this Government to accept that they have taken the wrong route. If this Government do not pay heed to the warnings, I hope that the next one will.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Charles Wardle) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) on securing this debate. The future of the private security industry is of interest to us all, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising it. The House will be aware of his long-standing interest in statutory regulation. He is definitely not a flash in the pan, as someone apparently described him.
I do not share the hon. Gentleman's view of syears. Since 1979, the Government have increased spending on the police by more than 80 per cent. to a figure approaching £6,000 million. There are 16,700 more uniformed police officers, and more uniformed officers being released by the process of civilianisation.
Police priorities remain to protect the public, prevent crime and tackle crime when it occurs. It has never been suggested that the police can handle crime prevention alone. As the hon. Member for Walsall, South knows, the Home Office has a wide range of initiatives. They include crime prevention units, the safer cities programme, 115,000 neighbourhood watch schemes, car crime prevention year, and so on. They all involve co- operative effort between the police, local community groups of all sorts, local authorities and business interests. Crime prevention cannot, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, be left purely to the police--and that has never been the case.
I define a private security company as one that employs staff to protect property or individuals, or that installs systems that do so. The superficial differences between the private security industry and what one might call the public security industry--such as the police and prison service--lie in the method of funding, accountability, the authority given to individuals, and the uniform.
Column 934The private sector receives its funds direct from those who want to pay for specific services. The hon. Gentleman would no doubt agree that it is accountable only to those who have paid directly for its services. Its employees do not have powers of arrest and detention such as those held by a police constable. It is an offence to impersonate a police officer. The private security guard, therefore, must wear a uniform that could not be confused with that of a police officer. That important distinction should be made in our deliberations.
I call those differences superficial because they are the surface indication of the substantial differences between the private and public security functions. The police are paid from public funds because they are expected to provide a service to everyone who needs to be protected from crime or public disorder. Police constables are accountable to the law, not to any individual who happens to pay them. Because of that wider accountability, they can be given the authority to interfere with the liberty of other members of the public--and because their uniform is a symbol of that authority, no one else can wear it. The private security industry, therefore, can be clearly distinguished from a public service, and it is divided into two main sectors.
First, and most visible, is the manned guarding sector, about which the hon. Gentleman spoke. It consists of security officers who are responsible for guarding individuals, private property and cash in transit. Also included here are the door supervisors employed by night clubs to control admission and maintain order. I shall say more about them later. Then there are the security systems specialists. They install and maintain intruder alarms, security locks and safes and, to a lesser extent, access control and closed circuit television systems. There is a clear need for all these services, and the future of the private security industry is to continue to provide them. That, of course, is a broad generalisation. It is in the nature of commercial firms to expand and find new markets. The question at issue in considering the future of the private security industry and regulation is how far such an expansion should be allowed to go. Privately guarded vehicles use public streets. Individuals living on public estates may decide that they want protection greater than that which can be provided by the police. Police capacity is stretched and could perhaps be augmented by privately hired security guards. Security systems installed by private firms could be monitored by these firms instead of by the police.
This blurring of boundaries is made even greater by the very welcome emphasis in recent years on the need for closer co-operation between the police and the public in crime prevention, to which I alluded at the beginning of my speech. There has been a tremendous growth in crime prevention activity, through the schemes to which I referred, up and down the country, involving active, public-spirited citizens. The public is becoming increasingly aware that the police cannot fight crime alone, or keep order without substantial co-operation from the general public. That must inevitably raise the question, which the hon. Gentleman touched on several times, whether there is room for any other commercial way of providing still more support for both the police and the public in their efforts to create the kind of society in which we all want to live.
The scope for this kind of expansion has already been recognised in the employment of private security firms under contract to the public sector. Where the full range of
Column 935police, or prison, powers and skills is not needed, it is difficult to argue that the private sector should not be involved. That has been recognised in the employment of Group 4 to replace police and prison officers who previously had been used to escort prisoners. It is, however, at an early stage of development. The Government wish to make a full evaluation of its effectiveness and its implications before deciding on other areas in which private sector security may provide a welcome relief to the heavily pressed public sector. If I may be allowed to dwell for a second on Group 4, about which the hon. Gentleman made some helpful remarks, despite the well-publicised problems--not publicised by the hon. Gentleman--during the early days of the contract, the court escort contract operated by Group 4 in Humberside and the east midlands is providing significant benefits to the criminal justice system in the area. Much has been made of the escapes from custody in the first days of the contract but, given the scale of the task that Group 4 took on, it would have been surprising if there had not been some teething difficulties. They should not be allowed to overshadow the fact that about 2,000 moves of prisoners are carried out successfully each week. Group 4 has been operating for 17 weeks, so we are talking about 34,000 prisoner moves, during which time there were 12 escapes.
The Government were able to offer a contract to Group 4 because it and other firms that tendered for the work were able to show that they maintained adequate standards, both in the employment of their staff and in defining the limits of their activities. That is not true of all security firms, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out. This lack of recognised or common standards is one reason why it may be premature to generalise about the future of the private security industry. This overall description covers organisations as well known and respected as Group 4 and Securicor ; smaller, less well-known but equally reliable specialist firms ; and individuals who have great personal integrity and years of experience. However, it also takes in groups of people who rather more closely resemble the criminals they purport to oppose and some who are out to make quick money rather than to offer a worthwhile service, as the hon. Gentleman acknowledged.
The wide diversity of the industry is one of the factors that make it difficult to generalise at present about the future role of the industry. Another factor is the extent to which the police service, to which it is most closely compared, is itself in a process of great change. The proposals in the White Paper on police reform are intended to encourage a much closer relationship between what local people want from their police and what they receive.
The White Paper gives chief constables much greater freedom to choose how best to meet the policing needs of the communities that they serve. It envisages stronger police authorities which may themselves have a view of the role of the private sector in their police areas. It would be premature to leap to conclusions now on the future role of the security industry before those critical changes come into effect.
Similarly, the White Paper suggests that both national and local objectives should be set for the police. Those objectives should help the police to prioritise and may encourage them, probably with some reluctance, to drop
Column 936some tasks that have previously been seen as theirs alone. There may be other opportunities for the private security industry in that regard.
I hope that what I have said so far shows that the Government are not blind to the opportunities for expansion of the private security industry or indifferent to the way in which boundaries between its functions and those of the police and prison service may change in response to changing circumstances. We recognise that the private security industry has a valuable part to play in the overall approach to public safety, but we think that it needs to demonstrate its own strengths and establish its own standards before it can become a strong contender for growth. We are anxious to see it become a more coherent industry of its own volition before we begin to consider seriously the diversion of large sums of public money to procure its services.
That is why we have encouraged and supported the industry's efforts to regulate itself instead of conceding to requests from the hon. Gentleman and others for Government regulation. If all that was in question was the checking of criminal records, that could be achieved, if not immediately at least when the new computerised criminal record system becomes operable next year, but the lack of a criminal record system in itself tells nothing of the industry's own maturity and ability to set standards and to see that they are maintained. We believe that the consistent refusal to accept this as a Government responsibility has been a significant factor in the progress that the industry is now making.
In 1990 the National Approval Council for Security
Systems--NACOSS--to which the hon. Gentleman referred, was created. It has since been accredited by the National Accreditation Council for Certification Bodies--the NACCB--as a fit and proper body to certificate firms complying with relevant British standards in the field of intruder alarm installation. In the same year, the Security Industry Training Organisation, SITO, was formed. SITO has since been recognised by the Department of Employment as the central point of reference for training needs throughout the security industry. In 1992, the Inspectorate of the Security Industry--ISI--was launched. That body was set up jointly by the main trade associations in the security industry. It provides an inspection service for firms in the manned guarding sector and is currently awaiting the outcome of its application for accreditation.
Companies within the industry may therefore apply to these bodies for certification to British standards, and customers should look for companies that comply with recognised standards. National vocational qualifications have been developed by the industry, and their increasing importance to companies as a means of assessing the quality of staff or applicants will also help to raise standards. I said that I would come back to the subject of door supervisors who are sometimes known euphemistically by other terms. This is an area in which individuals could all too easily abuse the aura of authority which being part of the private security industry can give.
The Government have received representations from 1989 onwards about problems of intimidation and violence caused by door supervisors in certain areas. The suggestion was that these would be mitigated by the introduction of a statutory licensing system involving
Column 937criminal records checks on those employed as door supervisors. Police reports revealed that some 60 per cent. of force areas had such problems and had set up, or intended to set up, local regulatory schemes in conjunction with local authorities to deal with them. The police were invited to monitor a representative sample of the local schemes over a year. The schemes mainly operated through conditions attached to the licensing legislation requiring door supervisors to be registered. The registration procedure involved local checking of criminal records. The schemes generally worked well, and I shall discuss them further with representatives of the entertainment industry and the hon. Memberss whom I have arranged to meet later this year, including the hon. Members for Wigan (Mr. Stott) and for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney). That local process matches much more closely than a national one the vision in the White Paper on police reform of local policing being matched to local needs. In taking the actions that I have outlined, the Government believe that the private security industry has shown itself to be flexible enough to provide answers to demands for improved regulation within a fairly short time scale, and to offer an increasing range of services in both the private and public domains. It is our view that it will increasingly compete for contracts in all aspects of protection of private property and of individuals. Those letting contracts, whether they are chief constables, chief executives or anyone else, will ensure that the companies and their work forces are able to demonstrate the right qualifications, and will set proper standards for job performance. Those who fail to offer quality assurance, or fail to meet the standards in operation, will not be able to compete ; hence the advantages of self-regulation.
In that way, we believe that those who are accountable to the public for public safety will increasingly have confidence in the services offered by the private sector. They will be able to make pragmatic decisions about the most effective way of ensuring public safety in situations in which the division between public and private property and interest becomes blurred. They will ensure that the public and the private sector work together at local level to meet local needs to local standards. It is only then that we shall be able to make a true judgment of whether further regulation is really needed.
Mr. Bill Etherington (Sunderland, North) : When the list of subjects for the debate was published, I thought that I would do what I usually do, and that is begin to make my speech at 8 am, just as the debate is due to end. However, I have been very fortunate, and I am pleased to be able to continue the Adjournment debate that you chaired a week ago, Madam Deputy Speaker, when my hon. Friend and much-cherished neighbour the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) first referred to the possible effect on water supplies in the north-east should the coal mining industry in that area die. One reason I chose this subject is that, last week, many questions remained unanswered. Although this is a difficult subject for most lay people to get a grip on, Members of Parliament do not have to be experts to have an opinion on most subjects. Our constituents expect us to take notice of expert opinion and try to reach a conclusion on the issue.
Until the late 1950s or early 1960s, my constituency and, indeed, what was the town of Sunderland before it became a city relied for its drinking water almost entirely on bore holes. That was an expensive way of providing water, because it required complex pumping arrangements.
Most hon. Members are aware that, when the Kielder reservoir was mooted in the 1950s, it was to cope with what was expected to be burgeoning demand from the expanding Teeside industrial sector--an expansion which, sadly, never came about. The Kielder was far too large for the needs of the area. When the Kielder reservoir was built, the system supplying the north-east was by means of a pipeline to the River Tyne, the River Wear and the River Tees. The pipeline intersected the three rivers between 25 and 30 miles from the coast. From that time on, bore holes in and around Sunderland were gradually closed, and more and more water was taken by abstraction from the River Wear. My constituency now relies almost entirely on the abstraction of water from that river.
The nearest plant at Chester-le-Street, which takes water out for the purposes of purification and transfer into the water supply system for Wearside, is 20 miles downstream from where that water enters the River Wear from the Kielder reservoir pipeline. This information may be mundane and boring but it explains the fears of my constituents should mining cease in the north-east.
The way in which the matter has been handled by British Coal and the Government reminds me of that great Prime Minister, H. H. Asquith, Earl of Asquith and Oxford, as he became, who was
immortalised--perhaps not for the best of reasons--for the phrase, "Wait and see." No politician or anyone who has any sense should use that phrase to answer a question. Such a reply could be a millstone around their necks for the rest of their lives. Yet that is precisely what representatives of British Coal say in response to the fears vented by local authorities and people in the north-east. Mining in the north-east began in the western extremes of the coalfield, which were quite shallow. Mining gradually worked its way east, to a great depth. It so happens that the one remaining colliery in County
Column 939Durham, Wearmouth in my constituency, is the deepest shaft mine in the north-east. It is at the bottom of the basin that consists of the coal measures.
In the past 100 years, as the western parts of the coalfield have been worked out, water has migrated from the cavities created by the roadways and the collapsed coal faces. For many years, British Coal operated a series of pumping stations, spread out inland, to prevent those vast quantities of water from reaching the coastal pits. Until relatively recently, there were eight coastal collieries, which were served by a fan of inland pumping stations. Gradually, those pits have been closed.
When the Minister replied to last week's Adjournment debate, he said that, in the 40 years since nationalisation, 107 collieries have closed. He claimed that that had not affected the water table or drinking water supplies. That reply misses the point, because, although the pits have been closed, the pumping has, until now, gone on unabated and kept the water table artificially low. It has remained at that level for the past 40 years.
I do not want to be alarmist, because many people spoil a good argument by exaggerating the possible effects of certain action. Nevertheless, British Coal has expressed one opinion about the water pumping which has been contradicted by the reservations expressed by environmentalists and the National Rivers Authority. They are not prepared to accept the opinion of British Coal.
The argument is about how long it will be before the subterranean water returns to its original level in the water table and about its quality when it finds its way into the River Wear. The old mine workings have created an entirely different underground environment from that which existed when the ground was solid. The coal measures contain permeable and impermeable beds through which water runs and forms Artesian wells at the bottom of the deepest measures. In the past, various water companies bought water from the then National Coal Board. They did, however, on occasions, stop buying it, because it was considered unsuitable for processing into drinking- quality water.
I, like many others, have met British Coal spokesmen about this issue. The vagueness of their replies leaves one more worried than before the questions were asked. For one thing, no one can give an exact estimate of when the water will start issuing from the mineshaft, nor can anyone say what its chemical properties will be. Still, the coal board contends that there is nothing to worry about. It may have nothing to worry about, because by the time the problem arises, British Coal may no longer exist, but eventually someone will have to pick up the tab. Already my constituents and the rest of the people supplied with their water by the Northumberland water authority are having to pay higher bills because of the construction of the massive Kielder reservoir. It is a pity that it cannot be put to better use, and the water sent to the midlands and southern England where it is badly needed--but that is a problem for another day.
Within the past week all Members of Parliament have received a letter from the Director General of Water Services in which he explains that the country is having great difficulty complying with EC water quality regulations. He goes as far as to suggest that some of the criteria should be made less stringent, so that we can comply with them more easily. At least we are being honest with the EC about our water quality ; several other countries are not bothering to be. I understand, too, that
Column 940the regulations are shortly to be tightened up further, which will only make matters worse. Anyway, the regulator estimates that compliance with the current regulations will cost the average householder another £100 a year.
Our worry is not that we will suddenly lose our water supply in the north- east ; we are worried about the costs if British Coal, as seems likely, is proved wrong. I seem to remember the coal board being wrong about a lot of things in the past. On its analysis we should still have 80 collieries operating. We were told that there was a golden future for them in the late 1990s, but we now have fewer than 20 pits.
British Coal may say that it knows all there is to know about pumping water and about geology. It does not know, however, about the chemical properties of the water that it produces, about the water's effect on supplies, and about the ability of the regional water companies to deal with the problem.
I would feel more confident that the problem will be adequately dealt with if the water companies had not been privatised. The consumers are now having to pay for most of the investment, and for the vastly enhanced salaries of the people who took over the industry and got themselves a nice cushy number. These private bodies seem more concerned with selling off land and running hotels than with water.
If problems arise, Northumbrian Water is likely to turn to the Government for a subsidy to help overcome this foreseeable problem. As British Coal has one opinion and the environmental experts have another, I hope that the Minister will announce that the Department of the Environment will set up a commission comprising a geologist, a hydrologist and other experts to give us an independent report. I have heard no statement from the Northumbrian water authority, so I do not know its position, but the National Rivers Authority, with which the basic responsibility lies, is far from happy with what is being said by British Coal.
In last week's debate, we went through many of the arguments, and I have tried not to repeat them tonight, but there is one thing that everyone should know, even if they know nothing about the supply of water. Everyone should know that, if one creates a void, something fills it. There are hundreds of square miles of voids at various levels throughout the whole of county Durham and most of Northumberland.
I do not think that the problem will have a great effect on the River Tees because it is on the edge of the coalfield but, as the water table rises and water percolates into streams and eventually into the River Wear, there will be insurmountable problems in the 20-mile stretch from where the Kielder water pipeline meets the River Wear and the furthest pumping station downstream at
Chester-le-Street. It is important that the debate continues until someone provides some answers.
It is no good one authority saying that it is worried while another says that it does not need to be. That is far from satisfactory. Any Government who were rightly concerned about the issue would be starting to make inquiries in their own right.