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Mr. Clarke: The words of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary stand today as they did when we were in

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opposition. I have made it clear in several speeches, including one to the British Security Industry Association, that the office of constable sets a constable apart from the rest of British society. It is an important constitutional role. Nothing that we or any Government do should weaken or diminish the significance of that role. My right hon. Friend and I stick with the words that the hon. Gentleman quoted.

Mr. Hawkins: That is helpful, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Since the Government came to power, many speeches have been made that suggest that the Home Secretary and the Home Office in general are moving towards a blurring of the distinction between police officers and private forces.

Mr. Clarke: I do not want to develop this argument at length, but that is simply not the case. We are not seeking to blur the distinction; it is very important. We are in favour of developing partnerships between the police and the private security industry, and the Bill will assist in that.

Mr. Hawkins: I, too, do not want to prolong the debate on this issue unnecessarily, because we shall return to it. However, when Ian Blair, the former chief constable of Surrey, expressed his views about working closely with private uniformed forces, those views were warmly endorsed by the Home Secretary. The Minister knows that the police were greatly concerned about the way in which the distinction was being blurred. Perhaps the Home Secretary has learned better since then. However, we hear the Minister's comments and shall return to them.

One reason we are worried about the Government changing their mind is because of the Bill's timing. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) highlighted the concern that the Government might not be seriously planning to enact the Bill before the general election. When the Home Secretary was in opposition, he attached huge importance and urgency to the measure, but he has introduced it late in this Parliament. In September 1996, as the then Opposition's spokesman on home affairs, he told the Police Superintendents Association conference:

Indeed, the Official Report is littered with comments by the former Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), who repeatedly told the House throughout 1997 and 1998 that a Bill such as this would be introduced "as soon as possible." Given what the Labour party said before and after it came into government about the urgency of the measure, it is surprising that the Bill has been introduced at such a late stage.

Mr. Clarke: Honestly, after 18 years of Conservative government, during which time no action was taken on the matter, it is a bit steep to be chided for not acting quickly enough.

Mr. Hawkins: The Minister is remarkably sensitive. I have given him many examples of the Home Secretary referring to the matter as urgent. I was in the House several times when the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth said that the Government would act as soon as possible. Yet only at the last moment--if the rumours are to be believed--is legislation being introduced.

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The distinguished parliamentary commentator Mr. Quentin Letts covered the proceedings in another place. The Minister rightly paid tribute to my noble Friend Lord Cope and his contribution towards improving the Bill. However, grave concerns were expressed about the Government's approach to the cost of licences. When they originally presented their White Paper, £22 was the best guess for the cost of the licence. By the time the Bill reached the other place, the cost had risen to between £35 and £40, which the Minister repeated today. We are worried that, once we create a quango or new authority with wide powers to increase charges, they will go up and up.

Lord Bassam spoke of his desire to ratchet up standards. We fear a ratcheting up of costs and prices. We shall continue to ensure that there is proper scrutiny. Although the Bill has merits, we hope that the Government will not try to rush it through. We want to ensure that before it becomes law, there is proper protection, analysis and scrutiny, which the Government have denied other Home Office legislation.

4.49 pm

Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North): I want first to declare an interest as a member of the GMB union, which has many members in the industry, and as the union official responsible for much of the industry in the early 1980s.

I welcome the Bill. As the Minister recognised, much has been written by my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) and others about the history of the security industry in this country. Originally, it employed many people from a military background and retired police officers. Much of the industry was born in wartime as a result of the need for additional security. During the 1960s and 1970s, the private sector business began to develop, servicing companies that wanted to improve their internal security.

There are a great many reputable companies with which I have had contact over many years. Throughout that time, they have endeavoured to raise the credibility of the industry, to have honest contracts, to provide honest security, to employ honest people, and to do a good job for the people whom they serve. However, they have had difficulties in some sectors. Differentiation of services by reputable companies means that some sectors regulate themselves. I know that the cash-in-transit sector is included in the Bill, but the market has good control over much, although not all, of that sector, which raises standards. That is due to the endeavours of the traditional, larger companies in the industry.

At the other end of the industry--the "man guarding" end--it has been an uphill task for those employers and employees who want to raise standards. There are two reasons for that. The first is the lack of wage regulation. It was difficult for a reputable company such as Securicor, Group 4 or Chubb to try to raise standards if a cowboy company said that instead of wanting £5 an hour as a contract price, it was prepared to do the job for £1.20 an hour. The consequences were that their staff were employed at 50p an hour--that is an accurate figure, as I am sure hon. Members will recognise--when the basic wage paid by a local authority was £1.75 or £1.80 an hour. That differential meant that reputable companies were continually being undercut.

The second reason, which is the corollary of the first, is that companies were employing people so cheaply that their margins were too tight to enable even the reputable

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ones among them to cover the on-costs of training or of vetting to keep out criminal infiltrators. Some of the companies would use the same uniform for two people on different shifts. At that time, the early 1980s, the reputable companies, the trade unions and the British Security Industry Association decided that something should be done.

We now know that the wage problem has been at least partially resolved by the minimum wage legislation, which I welcome. The biggest impact that the legislation had on male employment was in the security industry, where it has done a great deal to raise wage levels and allow companies to compete on a fairer platform. However, there is still a problem to be solved, and I welcome the Bill because it attempts to lay down rules within which people will have to operate if they want to provide private security. It will hit the cowboy companies, some of whose practices are atrocious. Apart from making employees share uniforms, they intimidate customers into taking their security services to the exclusion of those offered by other companies. They deliberately employ known criminals to case the joint so that others can come in later and make merry. Health and safety considerations are unknown to such companies.

When I was a union official, a shop steward came to me and said, "I really have to complain about this." I told him that I had heard all the complaints before. He told me, "We are trying to provide a decent service, but I've just been along to a site that we cover from Monday to Friday. When I left at 4 o'clock on Friday afternoon, I handed over the keys to a certain face, but when I came back at 6 o'clock on Monday morning, the same guy was still there and asked me 'Can I go home now, mister?' I told him he could." We checked it out and found that a contract security company covered the site at the weekend and that one person had been on duty from Friday afternoon right through to Monday morning.

Incidentally, I do not think that the individual concerned would have been entitled to British citizenship. Some of the companies employing such people exploited the corruption in our immigration rules, and although I would not want to deny anyone employment, people should go through the proper procedures to enable themselves to be employed. That case convinced me that something had to be done about the industry.

The Government are right to regulate. There is no argument to be made that we are intervening unnecessarily in the private sector. I am no believer in unnecessary intervention and regulation: if the market can deal with a situation, it should be left to do so, but if it cannot deal with a situation--I do not think that it can in this case--there is a need for state intervention. Winston Churchill said words to that effect in 1912 and I do not see why I should disagree with them today.

The Government are also right to set up the Security Industry Authority. Again, I am not one to argue in favour of having more quangos if another way of addressing an issue can be found, but we need a body that is at arm's length from the Government. Here, I add my voice to a plea that has already been made to the Minister by constituents and union members to whom I am close. When appointing people to that body, please will he appoint someone who is credible, has experience,

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is convincing, and will pull the industry forward? There is a fear that others will dance circles around someone who is not so qualified.

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