Private Security Industry Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Hawkins: I am grateful to the Minister not only for giving way, but for the helpful and constructive spirit in which he is approaching the issue. I ask him to bear in mind one matter as he considers a possible route for an emergency procedure. It would not be appropriate to incorporate in such procedure powers delegated from the SIA to local authorities. That is why I mentioned local planning issues: they can cause emergency meetings and we would not want the SIA's delegated powers to be used because, in another guise, the local authority's actions might be controversial.

Mr. Clarke: I take the point that the role of local authorities is that of regulator of issues in their areas combined with their own interests as an institution. [Interruption.] I see from the pagers that a vote is coming in which I am interested. Given that I shall take an overall look at the policy, will the hon. Member for Buckingham withdraw the amendment?

Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath and I generally think alike. I, too, welcome the spirit in which the Minister has responded. It should be put on the record that, first, I am happy to concede that there is not likely to be a large number of cases in which differential treatment might be desired or required. Secondly, I can go further and say that it is important that, when considering any back-up or protective treatment that might be available, we should ensure that we do not end up providing an incentive for people needlessly to seek a way out. In other words, I emphasise that applicants should be able to demonstrate good cause for seeking an exemption or fast-track procedure through the SIA of the sort that the Minister describes. It is not good enough for people to fail to prepare properly and prudently for an event and then to claim that they want to stage it now, that it did not occur to them to make proper preparations before and that they were unaware of the constraints of the law.

6 pm

I am not being argumentative: I am talking about the few genuine cases in which an important local or other issue springs up without advance notice, an opportunity that had not previously existed arises to stage an important gathering, and the problem is how to hold the meeting without breaking the law. In that respect, I am encouraged by the Minister's comments. I am not hung up about the form, but I am concerned that the needs of the individuals or organisations concerned should be accommodated. I understand why he might be worried that introducing a separate layer will produce duplication or confusion, but there must be a fast-track procedure that works. He went on to say that he was unsure whether it would be necessary to table an amendment or a new clause at a later stage in the Bill. I presume that he was implying that the matter might be accommodated through regulations.

Mr. Clarke: All I was trying to say was that I was unsure whether there was any inhibition in the present legislation on establishing an emergency procedure, or whether it would be necessary to facilitate matters by primary or secondary legislation. It is also possible that the practice of the authority could resolve the situation without the need for any such further measures. I did not want to state any firm conclusions, but merely to say that it is a matter that I need to examine.

Mr. Bercow: I think that we all need to examine it. I do not know whether the required changes are proscribed or prescribed under the terms of the clause unamended. Parliamentary counsel's views would be required to determine whether a change in the legislation is necessary. However, we should work on the assumption that a change is required, which will be effected by an amendment or a new clause on Report or through regulations.

I am glad that the Minister's comments this afternoon have been fairly explicit. My anxiety is that a general election—or ``another event'', as I elliptically referred to it earlier—might intercede. If that were the case, we would have to wait and see what happened to the Bill. That is a matter for discussion at the appropriate time and through the usual channels, but I want to be confident that the Minister had given us a definite answer about how our needs will be accommodated.

The Minister will not therefore be surprised that I now return to my usual hobby-horse: regulations. I assume that he will concede that there is at least a 50:50 chance that whatever amendment or clarification is required would be provided through regulations. If that were the case, it would be helpful if a draft of those regulations were made available before the next stage of the Bill, or if the Minister could write to me and my right hon. and hon. Friends to explain how he envisages meeting our concerns through the regulations. He appears to be quivering, although it is possible that he is nodding.

Mr. Clarke: I know that my bodily movements are always fascinating to the hon. Member for Buckingham. I was trying to indicate that I was thinking about what he had said. I am prepared to give the assurance that I will communicate with him and other Committee members, either in writing or by speaking in the Chamber, when I have further considered the matter in the manner that I have described.

Mr. Bercow: There is a limit to what one can expect in this life and I suppose that half a piece of cake is better than no cake at all. In keeping with the happy spirit that has characterised this exchange—although it has not, perhaps, characterised all our exchanges—I am prepared to accept the Minister's assurance. I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

6.4 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

6.19 pm

On resuming—

Clause 5

Offence of using unlicensed security operative

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Chairman: The hon. Member for Surrey Heath caught my eye in the nick of time. I ask him to address the Committee briefly.

Mr. Hawkins: I have no doubt that during your long and distinguished parliamentary career, Mr. Winterton, somebody has used the same pun about your Christian name, which I share. I hope that both of us will always be in the nick of time.

There was no debate at all on the clause during the Committee stage in another place, and there was only a brief explanation, without debate, of a minor Government amendment to clause 5. That amendment introduced the word ``conduct'' to clause 5(3), whereas in the first draft of the Bill the word ``activities'' appeared. That was the only matter raised in relation to clause 5 in another place, and not debated, because Lord Bassam moved the amendment on Report. We are in the unusual position whereby the Minister will no doubt have a detailed briefing from his officials that has not hitherto been used. I hope that it will now see the light of day. There are one or two issues in relation to clause 5 on which the Opposition want to probe the Minister.

The clause creates a new criminal offence of using an unlicensed security operative. The Opposition are concerned about how the new offence will be enforced. When the Minister responds to the debate, I hope that he will be able to tell us whether the Government envisage that the new Security Industry Authority will take on an enforcement role in relation to the provision. Do the Government anticipate that the new authority will undertake its own investigations? Will it bring its own prosecutions, or will it delegate those matters to the police? That would concern us, because the Government have already overburdened the police. Despite the bogus figures trumpeted by the Government yesterday, Opposition Members are aware that there have been greater and greater strains on the police, and that they have found it more and more difficult to recruit.

What discussions have the Minister or his officials had with senior police officers? It would be helpful if he would write to members of the Committee, if he cannot tell us today, to set out what meetings he has had, with whom in the police, at what level and on which occasions. It would also be helpful if the Government were to say whether their officials have yet made an estimate of the number of prosecutions in a calendar year that might be brought under the provision.

I also want to probe the Minister briefly on the question of defences. In considering this new offence—unusually, in a Committee, I am probably the only lawyer here—

Mr. Charles Clarke: Shame.

Mr. Hawkins: I am glad to hear the Minister say that. He tends to approve thoroughly of there being fewer lawyers. In other Committees, I have used the fact that he is usually anti-lawyer in his prognostications. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham said earlier how proud he was that he was not a lawyer. Nevertheless, any legislation that emanates from the House must be scrutinised carefully in respect of the rights of the defendant. All hon. Members—whether lawyers or non-lawyers—will be rightly anxious to ensure that there is proper provision to ensure that anyone accused of any new criminal offence can be properly defended, and that the issues in a criminal case can be properly tested.

Subsection (2) introduces a new statutory defence. Two different sets of wording are often used in statutory defences. One is that used by the Government in this instance—``no reasonable grounds for suspecting''. The alternative set of words, with a slightly different meaning—different in an important way—is ``no reasonable grounds for believing''. It would be helpful to know whether the Minister believes that the words that the Government have chosen give an adequate level of protection to someone who unwittingly employs an operative who does not hold a licence.

We would be grateful if the Minister would explain how, in conducting an investigation for an offence under the clause, either the police or an investigator from the authority—the Minister says that the authority itself will carry out investigations—will have access to the register of licensed operatives that the Government propose should be established under clause 12. Will either the police or other prosecuting authorities have a greater level of access to that register than an ordinary member of the public? It is important to know exactly what special privileges the prosecuting authorities or the police will have.

Most important, perhaps, is how the clause links with the proposed register, which we will discuss under clause 12. Will the register be integrated with the police databases used for the purposes of investigation?

The right hon. Member for Walsall, South appears to be pregnant with possibilities in respect of the debate. He is nodding, so I will conclude my remarks and bow to his greater expertise, if he can catch your eye, Mr. Winterton.

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Prepared 24 April 2001