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4.45 pm

Mr. Bercow: I am not certain whether the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) has got it right in new clause 5. I have not reached a conclusion on that point, but it is important for right hon. and hon. Members to understand the gravamen of his concern which, I believe, he highlighted on Second Reading initially, and certainly in the enjoyable and stimulating debates that we had in Committee.

The right hon. Gentleman is concerned that, either by an error of commission or--more likely, I suspect, if we follow what might be described as the cock-up theory--by error of omission, the Government may not provide a consistent regulatory framework. The principle of consistency and commonality has run through his contributions on that point. Whether one is an advocate of big or, to put it another way, heavy regulation of the private security industry or, by contrast, an advocate of small regulation or what might be called the light-touch approach, one can nevertheless form an alliance, which may even be an unholy alliance, in support of a consistent approach.

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I do not mind conceding to the House that I am a little worried by the reference in the right hon. Gentleman's new clause to "a regulation harmonisation committee", not because I suspect his motives but because I am suspicious of committees. That is the reality of the matter; I am a little alarmed about a new committee emerging. Notwithstanding the right hon. Gentleman's best endeavours to ensure the contrary, a committee under the tutelage of the Minister would be pregnant with peril. My anxiety on that point is not intense, because I do not expect the Minister to chair any committee in the near future in a ministerial capacity, but there is an inherent tendency for regulation, once established, to increase.

I am sure that it will not have escaped your beady eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that, in the debate that we had a few moments ago, I referred to the potential for read-across between the new clauses and other pieces of legislation that the House has digested on previous occasions. To explain my point about regulation, I should like to pray in aid the wise words of my noble Friend Lord Biffen who, over many years, has uttered many wise words on many subjects.

When I was taking my A-levels in 1981, I well recall that the then Chief Secretary and right hon. Member for Oswestry--as John Biffen then was--lamented publicly the difficulty of controlling public expenditure and said:

There is an analogy with regulation: to keep regulation at a reasonable level at which it is effective, but not burdensome, discipline and fixity of purpose are required. I--and, I very much hope, the right hon. Member for Walsall, South--do not want a committee to have the ambition to increase regulation exponentially. If the committee had a tightly defined remit--I would be more confident if its remit were drafted by the right hon. Member for Walsall, South than by the Minister of State--which was confined to consistency between one sector of the private security industry and another, that might augur well and my initial scepticism about the committee might be reconsidered. However, we do not know--although I imagine that we shall shortly discover--whether the Minister of State has any enthusiasm for the right hon. Gentleman's proposed harmonisation committee.

We need to touch briefly on a number of issues because they are conceptually different from each other and should be treated separately. The first is the form of the regulation--I was tempted to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman on this, but I was enjoying his speech so much that I decided not to--and the procedures that govern the regulation of one sector of the private security industry and another. I was anxious to discover whether the kernel of the right hon. Gentleman's argument was a worry about inconsistent practice and procedure between one sector and another, and that some sectors of the industry would be more rigorously scrutinised and held to account than others.

A separate, but no less significant, issue is whether there would be more exacting training requirements in one sector than in another. There is a stronger argument for absolute consistency in relation to the issue about form than there is in relation to standards of training or qualification. The reason is obvious. Whether we are regulating the work of man guards--or, for the edification of the politically correct classes, perhaps I should say

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person guards--or are concerned with those who are engaged, through their private security work, in intelligence gathering, the principle that there should be clear procedures before deciding whether someone is bona fide, and legitimate and should be granted a licence should, presumably, be the same. The procedures need to be rigorous, whether we are talking about licensing person guards, their supervisors or those engaged in the important business of gathering intelligence.

I hope that the Minister will accept that things are different when it comes to training requirements. In short, the jobs are very different. The nature and, arguably, the level of skills required for the performance of one function relative to those required for the performance of another are substantially different. I do not believe that the training systems can be the same because the training will be different, and of a different duration. It may be provided by people who on the strength of their experience are expert in one aspect of the private security industry, but not in another. However, there is the principle--I may have been overly pedantic, as this is probably what the right hon. Gentleman has in mind--that there should be a system of training requirement, and that it should not be voluntary. It should be obligatory and apply to everyone who wants to enter the sector or to stay in it.

If someone working in the private security industry in its unregulated form is an effective operative but has no formal qualification, that individual might be offended by any suggestion that he or she is not suitable to perform the duties that he or she is performing under contract. Nevertheless, that individual is not performing the job on the strength of any professional or other qualification, for the simple reason that he or she has never been required to obtain such a qualification. Presumably, whether or not the Bill is amended, it will be obligatory for existing operatives to acquire the qualifications that we are about to insist that new entrants should acquire. I would welcome an assurance from the Minister of State on that point.

Such an approach might be burdensome for people who already work in the industry, but it would be consistent with the letter and spirit of the new clause and would at least prevent the existence of two categories of citizen. It would ensure not only what my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) is inclined to call equality of esteem, but equality of treatment. We would be making it clear that everybody who works in the sector must measure up to the standards. It may be an entirely prosaic matter for a very experienced operative briefly to take the relevant course and examinations, to acquire the certificate and to wear the tee-shirt to say that he or she has done so. Nevertheless, the certainty that existing operatives have acquired the qualifications that their new counterparts will be obliged to gain as a precondition of service is likely to be central to the achievement and retention of confidence in the newly regulated industry.

I have not the slightest idea what the Minister will say about the matter. I have expressed my natural apprehension about regulation and regulation harmonisation, and my even greater apprehension about a regulation harmonisation committee. The proposal seems a slightly suspect specimen, although I am ready to admit that it is much less suspect in the tender and competent hands of the right hon. Member for Walsall, South than it would be in

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the hands of almost any other hon. Member. In fairness to the right hon. Gentleman, it should be said that the purpose that he has in mind is absolutely sound. The issue is this: does the Minister agree with that purpose and, if he does, does he think that the new clause is necessary? If the answer is yes to the first question, but no to the second, perhaps he would care to explain what I think he would describe in his inimitable terms as his preferred third way.

Mr. Charles Clarke: I was glad that the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) referred to the definition provided by the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) of equality of esteem. I am certain that, after the general election, there will be a debate on that subject in the Conservative party, between the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague)--the current Leader of the Opposition--and the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), as they appeal for the ideological support of various bits of their party. I think that the hon. Member for Buckingham is on the fence with regard to those various attractive propositions.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): He will go with the wind.

Mr. Clarke: I doubt it. The hon. Gentleman is a rather oleaginous man, and oleaginous people do not go with the wind.

On the central point of the new clause, I can answer the hon. Member for Buckingham positively. I recognise its aspiration and I welcome it with enthusiasm. I think that my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) is right to raise the matter with which it deals. As a minor aside, he should acknowledge that one of the ambitions of the better regulation taskforce, which has its pluses and minuses in his lexicon, is to achieve a more harmonised regulatory regime, with a view to lifting burdens from small business in particular. That is important where inappropriate regulation as a result of years of legislation introduced by Governments of all parties has imposed burdens that might be inappropriate for particular firms, industries and so on. Harmonisation--perhaps "simplification" is an even better word--is an important and worthy aspiration for the Government and I can enthusiastically endorse that aspect of my right hon. Friend's approach.

However, the new clause falls into the category of the quarter loaf that I described earlier. There is no fundamental difference of approach between my right hon. Friend and me, but we must consider how to deal with the matter in the context of the Bill. The Security Industry Authority is being established as the central and authoritative regulatory body for the industry and will be given a number of specific and important remits to discharge. To respond to the specific point that the hon. Member for Buckingham made, every organisation that the authority regulates will be obliged to adhere to its standards. That is the right way in which to proceed. To carry out its remit effectively, the authority will need fully to consult all interested parties throughout the industry while preserving its authority and independence. That is axiomatic to our thinking.

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