Private Security Industry Bill [Lords]

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Mr. George: If a company hires a potential arsonist, its inspection process and psychological profiling—about which the hon. Gentleman can speak with far more authority than I can—will have failed. A wonderful young woman firefighter in Bristol died four or five years ago when a company, ironically named Burns, hired a security guard who then set fire to the supermarket that he was supposed to be guarding. It is up to the companies: now that they are becoming more respectable, they must put in place the processes to prove that they are respectable. The clause relates to the licence application process, in which the companies will have to follow best practice. They might slip up—those who do not go through the proper procedures will definitely slip up—and have to go to the hon. Gentleman for legal advice to keep them out of jail, because the penalties, even under the softly, softly approach of the Home Office, are severe.

Mr. Clarke: I admire and respect my right hon. Friend's blood-curdling sentiments on this topic. They provide a useful introduction to the case in favour of the clause. As he said, it sets out a deterrence mechanism to show that there is a real offence that hurts the organisation that commits it. As the hon. Member for Surrey Heath said, there are three lines of defence. First, the accused may show that he neither knew, nor had reasonable grounds to suspect, that the operative did not have a licence. Secondly, it is a defence to show that he took all reasonable steps to ensure that the operative would not engage in activities for which he did not hold a licence. Finally, the accused may show that the security services that were provided were supplied by a person exempted from the need for a licence under clause 4.

We believe that those are reasonable defences, and no Committee members have disagreed. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating—the way in which the clause is enforced to ensure that we deter such illegal activity. For that reason, we cannot answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath about the anticipated number of prosecutions. I hope that there will be no prosecutions, because I hope that everyone will comply with the law. However, if people seek to bypass it, I agree with the blood-curdling sentiments of my right hon. Friend, and we will have to enforce the law rigorously.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath also asked about the reasoning behind the Lords amendment. I have reams and reams of briefing on such matters, not all of which I share with the Committee at all times, but I am happy to do so on this occasion. The amendment was purely technical: the word ``conduct'' in subsection (3), line 26, was previously ``activities'', but was changed to tie in with the concept of licensable conduct, as mentioned in clause 3(1) for example. The original phrasing was simply a drafting slip, no doubt influenced by the different concept of activities of a security representative.

More substantially, the hon. Gentleman asked how the clause would be enforced. Clause 19 will give the Security Industry Authority entry and inspection powers to check compliance. Those are important powers that can be applied in particular circumstances. The police have the responsibility of upholding the law and were fully consulted at both the White Paper and publication of Bill stages. It might interest the Committee to know that the Association of Chief Police Officers lead was taken by Richard Childs, the chief constable of Lincolnshire. He is an outstanding chief officer, who is driving forward a modern version of active policing in a number of different areas to deal with such issues. The police have been fully involved with the processes.

I do not accept for a moment the ridiculous suggestion that the hon. Gentleman made about so-called bogus recruitment statistics that were published yesterday. I was rather disappointed to hear a partisan political remark in this debate, but I am sure that that will not be repeated under your chairmanship, Mr. Winterton.

6.45 pm

We do not have plans to provide special access to the register's contents for law enforcement. It is a public document, with clear information. No one has requested special access to the register, and I do not expect such a request to be made. It is simply a source of basic information on names, addresses and the licensed functions that a person may undertake. It is a public register, as we shall discuss when we reach the relevant clause.

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point about the need to integrate the database with the general range of other police databases. As I have said in other Committees, we are engaged in a major project. We are seeking to integrate important databases such as those for DNA and firearms with the police national computer. The Government have invested in that to try to rectify the underinvestment that we inherited from our predecessors. We shall address that issue explicitly in this context, but the hon. Gentleman will know that upgrading the PNC is a major national investment that must be taken forward in the right way. It has procedural and other implications, which we are considering. His point will be taken into account in that context. I urge the Committee to accept the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6

Offence of using unlicensed wheel-clampers

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

Mr. Hawkins: The points that Conservative Members want to raise start with the fact that this clause was not part of the Bill when it was introduced in another place. It was inserted on Report in another place, creating a further criminal offence of using an unlicensed wheelclamper. It would help if the Minister explained exactly why the clause, which seems to be a logical follow-on from clause 5, was not originally in the Bill. It is more far-reaching than clause 5, which introduces a criminal sanction that applies to those who supply security services using unlicensed operatives. Clause 6 makes the service's end user subject to the criminal law.

The Minister and other Committee members may recall my saying on Second Reading that Conservative Members would seek assurances from the Government that the provisions criminalising those employing unlicensed operatives would be well publicised. Perfectly respectable businesses and individuals may wish to employ wheelclampers to stop the persistent unauthorised use of their parking spaces. There are, however, two sides to the coin. Respectable companies may employ apparently respectable wheelclamping companies that in fact operate in far too draconian a manner.

In contributing to debates on the issue, the hon. Member for Doncaster, Central has had very much to the forefront of her mind the fact that a company may look fine superficially and have nothing untoward about it, but the activities of its operatives at the sharp end may cause enormous distress. I am thinking particularly of the sort of companies that rail operators sometimes use. I mentioned in my speech on Second Reading concerns raised by the editor of one of my local newspapers. Those concerns have continued. The editor of The Surrey-Hants Star, Mr. Alan Franklin, has been following the issue with great care. His coverage of the incidents involving a company called Security International Group, used as an operator by South West Trains, has led to further correspondence.

The other day, I received another example: a letter from Mrs. Wendy McLean of Church Crookham, a constituent of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot). She has been one of the many people apparently victimised by the employees of Security International Group, even when she has had a perfectly valid ticket to use the train. It is single ladies travelling, perhaps using station car parks late at night, who are especially vulnerable to the tactics that can be used even by employees of apparently respectable companies.

The position is much worse because of charlatan companies—the so-called cowboy clampers. As someone said on Second Reading, they could even give cowboys a bad name. The hon. Member for Doncaster, Central and other hon. Members, from both sides of the House, have been concerned about the activities of cowboy clampers for many years.

Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster, Central): The hon. Gentleman mentions the coverage that his local newspaper has given to the activities of cowboy clampers. I wonder whether the newspaper is also aware that the RAC made very strong representations to the Government for a clause such as this to be included in the Bill, to make landowners responsible for activities carried out on their land. It is otherwise extremely difficult to pin down companies that are there one day and gone the next. The land remains, and that is why the RAC wanted the clause to be included.

Mr. Hawkins: The hon. Lady is quite right. I was aware of the point that she made, and the RAC was not the only organisation to raise those concerns. It is understandable for us to look at such provisions in the Bill. I simply wanted to alert the Minister to the fact that it would be helpful to hear some background from him, although perhaps he will repeat what she has just said.

I would like the Minister to comment, when he winds up, on the apparent anomaly in the Bill on which my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham touched in his remarks on clause 3. There appears to be a difference in the penalties. The two clauses are not absolutely alike. Although the Minister referred to that in passing, it would be helpful to understand a little more about the thinking of the Government, or that of his officials, about the different penalties.

The Minister will be familiar with my next point because it was raised on Second Reading here, and in another place by my noble Friend Lord Cope of Berkeley. It concerns the dentist who wishes to protect his surgery car park from unauthorised use by visitors to nearby shops. If the dentist were to employ an unlicensed clamper, he would be caught by the provisions of clause 6 and potentially liable to a prison term of up to five years. If that same dentist applied the clamp himself, or instructed one of his staff to do so, he would be liable under clause 3, and the maximum penalty would be six months. There is an anomaly there. Both methods could lead to criminal penalties, but there is a potential inconsistency.

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