Private Security Industry Bill [Lords]

[back to previous text]

Mr. Ian Stewart: The hon. Member for Southport implied that the hon. Member for Buckingham had a mouth full of words, or that he raised simple but serious points. Is it not sensible to let the Minister answer them, because the other question, about whether the matter should be written into the Bill, is also impacted on by the fact that the official record of our debates can be used in courts and tribunals?

Mr. George: I think that I have said enough.

Mr. Charles Clarke: I enjoyed my right hon. Friend's contribution. I was a little distressed by what I can only describe as his revolutionary pessimism in saying that he thought that there was enough work to share between himself, his councillor colleagues and the rest of us. We in the Government had all hoped that after another term of the Labour Government we would have achieved utopia; there would be no complaints because we would have achieved a perfect society. I am disappointed that he does not share that ambition.

On the points made by the hon. Member for Southport, I draw the Committee's attention to clause 26 (2), concerning commencement. It states:

    ``The provisions of this Act, other than this section, shall come into force on such day as the Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument appoint; and different days may be appointed under this subsection for different purposes.''

The process of kicking the thing off would be done by statutory instrument in the manner set out in the Bill.

The hon. Member for Buckingham made a speech in which, even more than usual, he made a tremendous mountain out of what is a small molehill. Some may say—I could not possibly—that that is his characteristic contribution to this Parliament. The power of direction in relation to a non-departmental public body is a standard provision in legislation, as we all know. It is the kind of provision that was available and was established in legislation passed by the previous Government for dealing with NDPBs. It is a routine process and I am surprised that so much could be made of it.

I will be clear; it is not the case that the Secretary of State can direct the SIA to issue or not issue a licence to a particular individual. A Secretary of State cannot issue such a direction. The licensing function is specifically conferred on the SIA and clearly set out in clauses 7 and 8. The power of direction cannot be exercised in such a way as to deprive the authority of its function. The power does not enable the Secretary of State to take over functions conferred on the authority by Parliament. That is important.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): Is the Minister saying that the Secretary of State can only order the SIA to do things that it is not authorised to do by Parliament?

Mr. Clarke: I am saying that the Act has the primacy. I do not know whether, in his time as a Secretary of State in the previous Government, the right hon. Gentleman put legislation through the House dealing with NDPBs, but the power exists specifically to allow directions to be made on issues such as what might be published in the annual report of the organisation or on a range of such functions. It is a general power. The explicit meaning of the Act is that it is the responsibility of the NDPB—in this case, the Security Industry Authority—to carry out the responsibilities set out in clause 1 in the ways elaborated on throughout the Bill. It is the authority's responsibility; it is not the prerogative of the Secretary of State to usurp that authority.

Mr. Bercow: The Minister accused me—unworthily, although entirely typically—of trying to make a mountain out of a molehill. I was doing nothing of the kind. I was airing legitimate concerns, as I will continue to do at every stage—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) can chunter and be smug from a sedentary position if he so wishes, but it will not discourage me from the pursuit of that duty.

Will the Minister acknowledge that what he is saying is argument by advocacy and not by evidence? He is simply asserting that there is no power to grant or to refuse a licence. How does he explain the conflict between that assertion and the fact that in subsection (1) of the unamended clause 2 we are told that the authority shall comply with any ``general or specific directions'' given to it in writing by the Secretary of State? It does not make an exception in relation to decisions on the granting or non-granting of licences.

Mr. Clarke: The point that the hon. Gentleman has not understood is that a series of functions are set out for the SIA in clause 1, including the power to grant or not grant licences. It is the SIA that, under the legislation passed by this Parliament, will have the legal authority to carry those matters through. It would not be right or appropriate for a Secretary of State to seek to usurp that function. If he turns his attention to clauses 7 and 8, he will see that the Secretary of State does have certain functions in relation to the operations set out, which we shall debate later. That demonstrates clearly that there are issues in relation to criteria. Clause 7(5) states:

    ``Criteria or revised criteria set out under this section shall not have effect for the purposes of this Act unless the Secretary of State has approved them.''

The Secretary of State therefore performs certain roles, which are set out, but they do not include the ability to usurp the responsibility given to the SIA by an Act of Parliament.

Mr. Lilley: Is the Minister saying that subsection (1) cannot be used in the way suggested—for example, to direct the SIA not to give a licence to a company when, for security reasons, it is known that it would be inappropriate to do so? What he has told the Committee would rule that out. Clearly, that is not what was previously understood by the Committee. That would seem to be one of the few occasions on which the clause would be justified without the amendment for which my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham has so eloquently argued.

Mr. Clarke: I am saying that the power does not exist in precisely the way indicated. I thought that my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South was saying—he will correct me if I misunderstood—that information, influence and opinions are spread throughout Government by a multiplicity of different means. He was not approving the stare of Baroness Thatcher, as it were, but simply describing what he had seen. There are many such areas, as he suggested. If the right hon. Gentleman is asking whether the Secretary of State has a right to direct the authority to issue or not issue a licence to a particular individual or company, the answer is no.

Mr. Hawkins: I am listening carefully to the Minister, but does he not recognise that what he is setting out as the Government's position is directly contrary to the letter that his ministerial colleague, Lord Bassam, wrote to my noble Friends in relation to the Bill? The terms of that letter were set out by my noble Friend Viscount Astor at column 1362 of the Official Report on 1 March 2001. It stated:

    ``I remain of the view that there may be very limited circumstances in which the use of a confidential direction may be necessary, for example, directions naming individuals or particular companies and consequently we should not place a requirement on the face of the Bill for all directions under Clause 2 to be published''.

That is a quotation from a ministerial letter relating to the clause. It is specific about what the Government were taking power to do.

Mr. Clarke: I had planned to address that matter later. The hon. Gentleman has misunderstood—although not, I think, maliciously—the point that has been made. As my noble Friend stated, it is conceivable that a Secretary of State might feel sufficiently concerned about the activities of particular individuals or companies to direct the SIA to investigate them. There is a difference between that and the argument erected by the hon. Member for Buckingham, which concerned the issuing of licences against SIA decisions, and therefore usurping its power. If I have not sufficiently dealt with that matter I will give way later, but I want to make more progress in addressing the points that have been made.

12 noon

As I indicated earlier, if directions are given, they are likely to relate to relatively routine matters, or conceivably to sudden or unusual circumstances to which the Secretary of State wants the SIA to respond, perhaps swiftly: he might be sufficiently concerned about the activities of particular individuals or companies to decide to ask the SIA to investigate them. I am not suggesting that those are likely scenarios, but a prudent Government would wish to be able to address them if they arose. If a directive were to be given about the activities of an individual or company, making it public at the outset might defeat the objective of achieving a confidential report. The hon. Member for Buckingham asked whether there were cases in which a directive should not be made public, and I suggest that that is one such example.

The Government believe that in the overwhelming majority of cases it would be right, and a matter of course, for directions to be placed in the public domain at the time that they are made, but that there are circumstances in which that might not be right.

My noble Friend Lord Bassam did not fully describe the limited and sensitive circumstances in the letter to which the hon. Member for Surrey Heath referred, because they are likely to be so rare and unusual that it is difficult to conceive of them. He suggested that, although it might be necessary to direct that there should be an investigation, it might be prejudicial to make that direction public at the outset.

Finally, I want to offer a little commercial for the Government. We passed the Freedom of Information Act 2000. That empowers individuals by enabling them to request to see directions when they arise, as all information held by public authorities is covered by the Act. That is another weapon in the armoury that my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South described when he was discussing parliamentary actions that can be taken in particular areas. The Government put that weapon on the statute book. Its practical effect is to enable the public to look directly at situations and to place information in the public arena.

It is also important to take account of the Act's disqualifications: one of its exclusions concerns instances when disclosure is prejudicial to the conduct of public affairs. I am trying to describe an example of that. A direction to look at a particular individual or company could be prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs, so the situation should be allowed to stand as it is. That is the basis on which I ask the Committee to consider the amendment, and on which I ask for it to be withdrawn or voted down.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 24 April 2001