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5.36 pm

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield): I agree with the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) about the importance of seaside towns; he made that case extremely well. I also agreed with what he said about wheelclampers and with what the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) said about criminals employed in the security industry. He made the case for licensing in that area, and he was right.

I was once a director of the private security firm Group 4, but I have not been so since 1993 and I have no other connections with the private security industry.

This has been a long journey. In my view, the significant turning point came on 4 July 1973 when the Security Industry Licensing Bill was introduced in the House. I should make it clear that it was my Bill. It was one of the 16 or 17 Bills that have been introduced since 1969 on the subject. I said at that time:

Many of those aims are echoed in the present Bill.

My Bill had the support of four formidable Conservative politicians of the time: Bill Deedes, Edward Gardner, David Walder and Michael McNair-Wilson.

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Such was the force of our argument that the Bill passed without dissent, and the House moved on to an emergency debate on the railways--nothing changes much in the House. The only trouble was that it was a ten-minute Bill, and it has taken almost 30 years for the Home Office to catch up with the case that I was making.

It would be churlish of me, therefore, not to welcome the Bill that has now been introduced, and I do so gladly. I have, incidentally, a range of other measures that the Government might like to adopt, such as the privatisation of the Post Office; the ending of the £5 billion a year pensions tax; and the cancellation of the absurd rules on annuities. Perhaps when the Minister of State continues his upward climb in the Government he will take that into account.

I am afraid, however, that at this stage I can give the Bill only two cheers, because under the terms of the guillotine--which we call the programme motion and which we shall debate next--it stands a fair chance of going exactly the same way as my ten-minute Bill did in 1973. Under the guillotine, proceedings in the House are not planned to end until 1 May. A general election on 3 May would, therefore, kill the Bill stone dead. There would be no Act of Parliament, and no licensing system.

I should be happy to receive an assurance from the Minister of State that a 3 May election is the very last thing that he or the Government want. I know that he is on the inside track to No. 10, so if he is likely to give me that assurance, I of course give way.

Mr. Charles Clarke: I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance because I do not know what is in the mind of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. However, if an election were called for 3 May, is it the right hon. Gentleman's view that it would be helpful for the official Opposition to do what they can to secure the passage of the Bill during this Parliament?

Sir Norman Fowler: That is probably the most significant intervention that I have heard from the Government side about a 3 May election. I have not previously heard it put to the Opposition that we should be in the business of co-operating should a 3 May election be called. Those who heard the Minister's intervention may conclude that a 3 May election is becoming more likely, not less, but I leave it to the commentators to think about that.

The Bill is being debated on Second Reading, and although I am not in charge of Opposition affairs I think that it is a bit much to say to us that it should simply be ticked through. However, I listened to what the Minister said. I went on a deliberate fishing expedition, but I did not expect to land such a big catch.

Incidentally, I happen to take the old-fashioned view that Governments are elected to govern. Only when they have got through a crisis should they think about elections, but I am not at all sure that that is entirely their current view. Indeed, the Minister made that clear. Therefore, in such circumstances, my speech is directed as much to my own Front Benchers as it is to the Government, so that they will pick up the Bill after the election.

The case in principle for licensing private security remains the same as that outlined by me and others such as the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George).

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I pay tribute to what he has done over the years in consistently making the case on licensing, which we have put to Governments of both parties, and it is good to see the west midlands mafia working together in such a way.

I was glad to hear the Minister talk about this thriving and successful industry. I welcome the words, but I must observe that they were not the ones that Labour Members used in opposition. The language of the Labour party has changed radically, but I welcome that conversion.

In our crime debates, we tend to concentrate on detection. Obviously, detection rates are vital, but so too, self-evidently, is prevention. The first orders issued to the Metropolitan police said:

As the years have passed, all European police services have been forced to give more priority to detecting crime, preserving public order and handling emergencies. Correspondingly, less police work has been devoted to preventing crime. One example makes the point.

In the late 1950s and the 1960s, the British police were still able to provide police escort services for cash in transit, but by the 1960s the increase in criminal attacks on cash being transported produced a demand for police protection that forces were unable to meet. The result in the 1960s and 1970s and since was the development of cash-in-transit services by private companies.

Such companies already offered guard services to protect offices and factories--the traditional role referred to by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North--but protecting cash in transit brought the private security industry face to face with the public, often for the first time. Not everybody liked what they saw.

The public certainly wanted crime to be prevented. They wanted burglars to be prevented from burgling and robbers to be prevented from robbing and they accepted, I believe, that the private security industry was crucial in that, but they also wanted the confidence that companies and the people they employed were providing such services properly. Furthermore, they needed to have confidence in the integrity and honesty of those companies and employees.

Of course, there is a civil liberties issue here. If we put a person in a uniform, put him in an armoured van and perhaps give him a stave to defend himself, to some extent we give him an authority that the ordinary citizen does not possess. Again, the public need to be reassured that that power, which is implicitly given to such people, will not be abused.

An enormous concern has been that people with criminal records have been employed in the industry. Back in 1973, I gave the example of a Manchester company run by a man who admitted that he had twice been convicted of grievous bodily harm and who employed four or five staff with criminal records, including one who had served sentences of three and five years for burglary and receiving. Over the years, there have been countless examples of that.

It is extraordinarily ironic that we have allowed that position to continue year after year. Given the intense struggle to establish an organised police force in this country, and given the special position that private

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security companies hold in respect of the public, it is amazing that we have enabled anyone who wants to do so to set up such a company.

The case for licensing has been pressed for many years and I pay tribute to Jorgen Philip Sorensen, head of Group 4, who has worked so hard since the 1960s to achieve licensing. Goodness knows, there are many examples from other European countries to show the way. Most European Union countries have a licensing system. Belgium, for example, issues licences to security companies, which are subject to renewal after two years. Each has to provide a list of shareholders to prevent criminals from controlling security companies while staff are officially checked as being free from criminal conviction. Such systems in Europe have stood for many years as a sensible way forward.

I welcome most of the provisions. We have a private security industry that is probably bigger than the organised police force, so it is sensible to establish the Security Industry Authority, which will administer a compulsory licensing scheme for private security guards, door supervisors and the rest.

Mr. Clarke: In no sense am I making a partisan point and I gladly pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman's efforts over his years in the House, but, given the powerful points that he has made, why did not the Conservative Government of which he was a member legislate on the subject?

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