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Mr. Burnett: I am extremely grateful. The reason I raised these points on the Floor of the House is that I am serving on two Standing Committees concurrently and I can only be in one place at a time. If by any chance I am unable to catch the Chairman's eye in the Standing Committee considering the Finance Bill, I hope that someone from the Treasury will reply to the points that I have raised.

Mr. Timms: I shall be glad to provide a written response to the hon. Gentleman on those points.

Question put and agreed to.


Limited Liability Partnerships

8 May 2001 : Column 29

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Orders of the Day

Private Security Industry Bill [Lords]

As amended in the Standing Committee, considered.

New Clause 4


'( ) Any person who has cause to complain of the conduct of a private security operative or approved contractor may lodge a written complaint to the Authority on the following grounds:
(a) that an operative or approved contractor has been convicted of a crime;
(b) that an operative or approved contractor has breached a provision of this Act or any regulations made under this Act;
(c) that an operative or approved contractor has been guilty of negligence or misconduct in the course to which the operative or approved contractor is licensed or approved;
(d) that the operative or approved contractor has breached the provisions of a code of conduct published by the Authority.'.--[Mr. Bruce George.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

4.3 pm

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Based on my reading of the debate in another place and on having served on the Standing Committee that considered the Bill, I am supremely confident that the Minister will not accept my new clause. I certainly understand the reasons for his reticence, which is due mainly to the fact that time is running out. Some weeks ago, I had to decide whether half a loaf was better than none; after some agonising, I decided on half a loaf--with the possibility of its dramatic expansion. I am not a cook, but there is always the possibility that, with careful nurturing and cooking, bread will expand. I hope that in time there will be more legislation.

There are one two gaps in the Bill, to put it mildly. New clause 4 would introduce a complaints procedure and enable the regulatory authority to establish a complaints committee. I hope that the need for that is self-evident, even if the proposal is not accepted. When the authority is set up, it will draft its working procedures and embark on an extensive process of consultation, which I am sure will show that a complaints committee has a place in the authority's committee structure.

My hopes that a similar provision would be included in the Bill were dashed, but the omission is not disastrous. The need for a complaints procedure is pretty clear, as there are an infinite number of possible causes for complaint. For example, an hon. Member might be duffed up by a security guard or badly advised by a private investigator; or his daughter might tell him that drugs were being distributed in a night club by a firm of bouncers in league with drug distributors; or a security guard who purported to be licensed might not be. The new clause lists other examples, and it would be superfluous to add to them.

Only part of the security industry will be regulated. The industry has been open to enormous criticism, much of it unfounded, but there has been no one to complain to. To whom can one complain in the period before the Bill is

8 May 2001 : Column 32

enacted? I have no idea, and suspect that very few people know. There are many self-regulatory bodies, and people can seek advice about which one can help. No doubt those bodies have a complaints procedure, but the overwhelming majority of companies in the private security industry belong to none of those regulatory bodies.

Let us take the example of a person who wants to complain about the firm that installed his alarm, but discovers that it does not belong to the British Security Industry Association or any other body. Where does he lodge his complaint? Should he turn to the local consumer protection department? Should he write a letter of complaint to the editor of a newspaper, or resort to a lawyer in an attempt to secure a legal claim against the company? The process is a patchwork and does not work.

Do the trade associations with a self-regulatory structure have teeth? How many firms have they slung out for breaching the rules? If recourse is had to the criminal courts, it will be difficult to secure evidence, and the case will be protracted.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): In terms of the otherwise admirable construction of new clause 4, I am a little perturbed by what seems to be the mistaken insertion of "to" in the second line of subsection (c). Does the right hon. Gentleman intend to substitute "of" for "to"? If the answer is no, can he enlighten me as to the purport of that subsection?

Mr. George: I had not spotted that. I shall look at the new clause carefully and, after the hon. Gentleman speaks, I will, with the approval of the Chair, intervene to correct any mistake.

When the industry is properly regulated, it will still produce a large number of complaints. I do not want to encourage frivolous complaints--if the regulatory authority feels that a complaint is frivolous or vexatious, it may not wish to proceed with it--and I do not want to establish a vast bureaucracy, but the complaints committee should be distant from the main body of the regulatory authority to give it a degree of independence.

The industry will metamorphose to achieve the standards that will be laid down and built upon by subordinate legislation. Many of the complaints that are inherent in the current process will become redundant and the industry will become more professional. Companies will become better; they will realise that their cards are to be marked and that if they commit misdemeanours or criminal acts they run the risk of having their licence withdrawn.

I hope that a code of practice will supplement the Bill's provisions. As I said in Committee, private security companies should not be the bases of campaign headquarters in any parliamentary election, as is the case in my constituency; that should not be within the scope of a security company's operations. A company should appear somewhat distant from the cut and thrust of an election.

I have no intention of boring the House with speeches of one hour and 20 minutes, as, regrettably, I did on Second Reading and in Committee. I am not a snooker player of any competence--my record break was nine, which included a black--but I know that a player must identify for the referee or opponent the pocket that he is

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aiming for; that is certainly the case in pool. Every time I speak from now on, I shall indicate the time I will take. I have spoken for less than 10 minutes in moving the new clause, without much expectation of success.

Mr. Bercow: The self-effacement of the right hon. Gentleman is legendary in this House, but I am bound to say that there is no justification for it. As he knows, and as I am happy to communicate to other hon. Members, I invariably find his speeches racy and intoxicating in equal measure. As we are in the dying embers of this Parliament, it is right that we should pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman. Not only is he a first-class Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence--a point on which I shall not expatiate, Mr. Speaker--but, more particularly, he is without question the foremost authority on the subject of the private security industry in this House. He and I enjoyed a chat on the subject the other day. He profited nothing from our exchange, but I profited a great deal.

4.15 pm

Mr. George: I caution the hon. Gentleman against further eulogies; otherwise, his speech may appear in my election material, and my opponent may complain to the party chairman. I urge him to refrain from further compliments if his future in his party is to be secured.

Mr. Bercow: I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his protective hand, but, as he knows, I am a modest and self-effacing fellow and I know that I have a great future behind me and a great past in front of me. None the less, I appreciate his tender care.

The nub of the matter is accountability. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman intends to press the motion to a vote, but if he does we are minded to support it. We are concerned to have a lever whereby we can ensure the effective accountability of private security operatives. I long ago gave up seeking to penetrate the inner recesses of ministerial minds, but the Minister might say, "Ah,' tis implicit. No one is arguing that these people should be able to operate without let or hindrance, with no requirement to be subject to scrutiny or assessment."

It is certainly the case that the granting of a licence to operate in the private security industry is not a blank cheque. For example, if an operative conducts himself inefficiently, or worse, is guilty of malfeasance or corruption, he is likely to be deprived of that licence. These matters were touched on briefly in Committee and I am well aware that the fact that someone is a licensed operative does not mean that he or she will always remain so, but the right hon. Gentleman has usefully highlighted what I might call the issue of transparency or, if I dare use a late 1980s term, glasnost.

I am an enthusiast for glasnost. Are we to know that there is a procedure for complaints? Will there be a procedure for public complaints? Will someone who is genuinely dissatisfied with or anxious about the performance of an operative's duties be able to go to the authority and express both the fact of and the grounds for that anxiety or dissatisfaction?

There is an analogy with the police complaints procedure. I am an enthusiast for the police, as Conservative Members are on almost all occasions and as Labour Members are periodically. There would be

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consensus in the House on the importance of having a complaints procedure, of its being clear and transparent and of people having the maximum opportunity to know about it and be able to use it.

We are talking about an embryonic regulatory regime that is being instituted very late in the day compared with those that are already up and running in other countries. People should know what their entitlements are.

I have not discussed new clause 4 with the right hon. Gentleman but I have read it several times, and his simple purpose seems to be to let people know that there is a chance to complain, to explain how they can do so and to guarantee that there is a more or less approved, regular and satisfactory method investigating those complaints. I do not want to embarrass the right hon. Gentleman any further than I have already done, but in this context, as I have had reason often to observe in others, the point that he makes is so blindingly obvious and sensible that only an extraordinarily clever person could fail to see it.

The Minister is an extraordinarily clever person. He is very important, very senior and very industrious, assiduous and ambitious--a man with many commitments and a full diary. I do not doubt that he will want to explain either why he agrees with the right hon. Gentleman and say that it was merely an occasional slip of memory that prevented him from including such a provision originally, or why, despite his brilliance, assiduity, dexterity and ambition, he is unwise enough to disagree with his senior colleague.

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