Private Security Industry Bill [Lords]

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Mr. George: I am not renowned as a grovelling loyalist.

Mr. Charles Clarke: Shame.

Mr. George: My criticism related specifically to the better regulation taskforce's malign influence on the Bill—I did not comment on its and the Government's general philosophy. However, it seems not to have much of a handle on the private security industry, and its intervention was unhelpful. Having spoken to people outside the House, I suspect that it had some influence in terms of legislation on house security. Mine was a criticism not of policy in general, but of the private security industry.

Mr. Hawkins: No one who has listened to the right hon. Gentleman's trenchant speeches in the House on a variety of issues—he has particular expertise not only in this field, but in defence—would describe him as a grovelling loyalist.

Mr. Bercow: Or an unctuous toady.

Mr. Hawkins: Indeed. When the right hon. Gentleman said that he is not a grovelling loyalist, the Minister said ``Shame'', which is revelatory of Ministers' attitude to this and other aspects of policy.

We agree that a fundamental review will be necessary. When a new authority is established, it does no harm to scrutinise what the House has done, and such scrutiny should be carried out not by the authority itself but by an outside body. It would be a valuable improvement if the Bill required that a written report on the review be sent to the Secretary of State, to be laid before both Houses of Parliament. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will want to pursue the matter, and even if he does not, we shall return to it on Report. We may consider a modification of the amendment, to bring in an outside body to conduct the review.

10.45 am

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): The idea of a review is always reasonable, and it is proper that a body should produce a report that Parliament can examine, so the amendment is uncontroversial. However, I also tend to the view that the best reviews come from somebody who looks from the outside, rather than from within. Commons or Lords Select Committees can examine such reports, and they generally do a good job. We are moving to a system in Parliament in which we routinely build in scrutiny by Select Committee and, when matters fall within its remit, by the all-party human rights group. The Westminster Hall idea for a supplementary Chamber is clearly intended to allow more reports to be discussed. Since I have been in Parliament, one frustration has been that Select Committees were set up to do a great deal of work, but their reports have merely sat on the shelf. Reports were published, there may have been a press conference and some coverage, but nobody apart from Ministers and civil servants paid much attention.

We must have a proper debate about who reviews agencies and authorities that report, in this case, to the Home Office. Such agencies principally work within the Home Office, but they also work across other Departments. I do not have a final view on that, but there must be an independent person who neither holds the brief of Government nor speaks for the industry being regulated.

The amendment would produce a reasonable and normal addition to the legislation, and there would be a report by the authority that would be laid before Parliament. There is a case for seeking to discover what could be the wider form of regulation. Since the Minister has been in his post, and I in mine, most new legislation has been accompanied by the creation of new authorities. Most recent Bills have entailed an appeal authority, a regulatory authority or a supervisory authority. It will be helpful if he can tell us whether the Home Office, apart from annual reports, has taken a view on how the workings of those bodies could be independently scrutinised by people who do not have a vested interest in either their continuation as they are or in removing them because they are regarded as over-prescriptive.

We must be mindful that many quangos and agencies have been created. If we are not careful, the citizen's opportunity of managing that burgeoning process of government will continue to be reduced. The dangers are that consistency will be diminished and authorities will become self-serving. Normally—the right hon. Member for Walsall, South was right about this—authorities ask for more power, resources and responsibility from the public sector, rather than less.

Mr. Clarke: This has been an interesting discussion. At the outset, I should say that I agree with the central thrust of the argument across the Committee.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South did not give a great deal of time to the question that he raised on Second Reading on the independence and authority of the authority itself. I am sure that we shall debate that at length when we consider schedule 1, to which he has tabled amendment No. 6. There is an interrelationship between that matter and the issues that he has raised in this debate. The clause contains several references to specific charges on the authority to review the operation of the legislation, which I shall go through in order.

Subsection (2)(b) states that one of the authority's functions will be

    ``to keep under review generally the provision of security industry services and other services involving the activities of security operatives''.

That represents a substantial responsibility, which is reinforced by subsection (2)(g), which gives the authority the obligation and function

    ``to keep under review the operation of this Act.''

The authority must keep under review not only the provision of security industry services, but how the Act operates. That is an important obligation.

Subsection (4) states:

    ``Without prejudice to subsection (3), the Authority may, for any purpose connected with the carrying out of its functions—

    (a) make proposals to the Secretary of State for the modification of any provision contained in or made under this Act; and

    (b) undertake, or arrange for or support (whether financially or otherwise), the carrying out of research relating to the provision of security industry services and of other services involving the activities of security operatives.''

Those two substantial and significant powers will enable the authority to address the situation further and to face up to the challenges to which my right hon. Friend referred when he gave his analogy of the map of Africa. As we better understand the operation of the industry and its changing nature in the modern world, the undertaking, arranging or supporting of the carrying out of research will become important, and the Bill explicitly states that it is one of the authority's responsibilities.

Mr. Hawkins: Perhaps I misunderstood the right hon. Member for Walsall, South, but I thought that his reference to the map of Africa meant that the White Paper had contained certain aspects that he anticipated would be covered by the Bill, which then disappeared, and that that was like going back to an old map of Africa. I think that the Minister misinterpreted him.

Mr. Clarke: The hon. Gentleman may be right: perhaps I misinterpreted my right hon. Friend's interesting metaphor. I took his point to be that, as we gradually discover and explore the nature of this beast—the private security industry—we may want to change the way in which we operate, and will therefore need to review the situation in that context.

Mr. George: I would have used the geographical analogy of Atlantis had I wished to emphasise the disappearance of mythical elements that had appeared at an earlier stage. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman intervened to clarify my thoughts, which were rather hazily presented. I meant both what he said and what my hon. Friend the Minister said.

Mr. Clarke: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I drew attention to his metaphor in order to make the point that the extent to which the authority uses the power to make proposals to the Secretary of State or to undertake research depends on the calibre, intelligence and independence of the authority, which are very important, and which we are determined to secure.

Mr. Bercow: I put it to the Minister that the provisions in the clause for continuing private self-scrutiny do not provide the same discipline or incentive that would be provided by a bird's-eye or holistic overview after a set period. Would he at least consider the proposition that such a bird's-eye view, undertaken by an independent authority and reported publicly, would be substantially preferable?

Mr. Clarke: That leads me directly to my next point, which deals specifically with an aspect of the amendment. Schedule 1(17) says:

    ``As soon as practicable after the end of each financial year, the Authority shall send to the Secretary of State a report on the carrying out of its functions during that year . . . The Secretary of State shall lay a copy of each such report before each House of Parliament.''

The obligation is clearly set out that each year—not, as the amendment suggests, at the end of three years—a report must be made on the issues considered here. If research has been undertaken, arranged for or supported in the way set out in subsection (4), or if the authority comes to conclusions in carrying out its statutory responsibility to keep under review the operation of the Act, that will be reported every year to the Secretary of State and laid before the House for the kind of the debate requested by the hon. Member for Buckingham. I should say ``consideration'' rather than ``debate'' in order not to prejudge the decisions made in the Whips Office in any of those circumstances.

A substantial part of my argument in urging my right hon. Friend to withdraw the amendment is that throughout the clause several specific obligations are placed on the authority to review the process, commission work and make proposals. It has an obligation to report every year on what has happened in a document that will be laid before both Houses of Parliament. Much is provided in the Bill that meets his points.

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Prepared 10 April 2001