Private Security Industry Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Bercow: I beg to move amendment No. 35, in page 6, line 28, leave out paragraph (a).

The Chairman: With this we may discuss the following amendments: No. 36, in page 6, line 31, leave out paragraph (b).

No. 37, in page 6, line 34, leave out paragraph (c).

No. 38, in page 7, line 4, at end insert—

    `(7) In determining in accordance with the criteria set out for the time being under subsection (3)(a) whether or not a person is a fit and proper person to engage in licensable conduct, the Authority shall have regard to any representations which may be made to it; and if the Authority proposes to refuse an application on the grounds that the applicant is not a fit and proper person to hold a licence, it shall give the applicant an opportunity to respond prior to the refusal.'.

Mr. Bercow: These are probing amendments, as the Committee will understand. They relate to two broad issues—the fitness and propriety of a person to be granted a licence, and the training and skills required by the unamended clause.

We are worried about the limited definition of the criteria provided in the Bill. Will the Minister comment on the inclusion of a fit and proper person test in subsection (3)(a)? Looking askance at the clause, it seems slightly strange that the Government are including a fit and proper person test while simultaneously proposing to abolish that test for alcohol licenses in the licensing White Paper published last year.

I am conscious of your strictures, Mr. Winterton, and of the firm display of authority that we always have from you, so I merely animadvert to the licensing White Paper, and do not intend to dilate on it. As you will be aware, one of the Deputy Speakers of the House, the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir A. Haselhurst), has acknowledged the distinction between animadversion and dilation.

Mr. Charles Clarke: I am slightly worried that the hon. Gentleman is becoming a dilettante.

Mr. Bercow: Very witty. If we continue today's proceedings in that spirit, we shall not be doing too badly. I shall try to avoid becoming a dilettante, as the Minister puts it. I have many gripes about him, but I would not accuse him of being a dilettante.

There seems to be a difference of approach between the Government's attitude to the licensing regime as reflected in a Home Office White Paper—and, indeed, widely welcomed, not least by me—and their approach in this context. There may be perfectly good reasons for that, but they have not yet been advanced. These probing amendments provide an opportunity for the Minister to explain.

In paragraph 15 of the licensing White Paper, the Government contend that the test is vague. It is not entirely clear why, if it is vague in that context, it should or can be other than vague in this context. If the Government's proposals on licensing are enacted, as I understand it—I am happy to be corrected if I am mistaken—the licensee of a nightclub will not need to be a fit and proper person, but his or her bouncers will. That seems contradictory and presents rather a conundrum, which I hope that the Minister will be good enough to explain or, better still, resolve. It is germane to our discussion whether the authority will take representations on whether someone is a fit and proper person or whether it will merely determine the matter on the strength of an interview or a written submission from the applicant.

10.15 am

In the event that there is an element of interactivity—an exchange of views—will the applicant be able to respond to any adverse comments that have been made about him? In other words, we want to know not only whether an applicant is entitled to a comeback on the decision, but whether he is entitled to know the information or commentary that led to the original decision about which he is vexed.

What is meant by the phrase

    ``the training and skills necessary''

in subsection 3(b)? Will there be recognised training courses or minimum standards? If so, what sort of courses will they be? Who will conduct them? Where will they take place? Will fees be payable in respect of the service provided? Will there be prerequisites? Such matters are not entirely clear to me, but I hope that the Minister will clarify the matter.

How will the authority verify whether someone has been trained to the required standard? I assume an arrangement will be in place whereby a certificate must be produced. The Minister may consider that some of these matters, particularly the more commonsensical elements, are implicit in the clause, but whether there will be formal mechanisms, formal courses and formal individuals appointed to train is not entirely clear. Such matters require some explanation. I am quizzical about the clause, so will he say what areas are likely to fall under the rubric of ``other matters'' under subsection 3(c)?

The powers are broad. That, in itself, may be entirely necessary, but we need to know what they are. Subsection 3(c) states that the criteria set out by the authority

    ``may also include criteria relating to such other matters as the Authority thinks fit.''

That may be a moveable feast, and over time new criteria may emerge as a result of situations that were unsatisfactory or deficient. It may be difficult in advance to depict the scenario for those issues to arise. However, will there be a safety valve or an accountability mechanism for the exercise of criteria in relation to such other matters? I look forward to hearing what other members of the Committee have to say, and to the Minister's reply in particular.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Having had to argue, in a previous life, that people were or were not fit and proper in terms of licensing matters, I concur that a consistent approach must be taken when licensing people to undertake particular jobs. The hon. Member for Buckingham advanced a reasonable argument that, not least for the sake of those who adjudicate, there should be consistency. It strikes me as anomalous that there would be no parallel between people who are given drinks licences and music and dance licences—whatever changes occur following Green and White Papers—and those who will be licensed under the Bill.

As my noble Friend, Lord Thomas of Gresford said in the other place, there is a huge amount of case law and history on the fit and proper person definition. Generally, in terms of lay understanding, it is a perfectly reasonable starting point. Without going into the detail, everybody understands what it means: somebody who does not have a criminal track record and will not be inappropriate to do the job. Have the Government thought about whether it is the only possible definition available? Did they consider others and reject them? If they concluded that it was a term of art that has been established, do we not need a system whereby people can challenge an initial refusal, as in amendment No. 38?

I am concerned that many such matters might harm people's prospective careers. It is analogous to teachers being suspended, for example. If, on the basis of an argument brought to the attention of the licensing authority—which might not be well supported, and might be an allegation rather than a proven fact—it was decided to refuse a licence, there should be an opportunity to correct the decision. In the case of credit ratings, for example, somebody might have been taken to court for not paying rent, but it might be discovered later that it was entirely due to the housing benefit process not having paid the rent for the individual concerned. If we are to have a subjective test, which, by definition, the fit and proper person test is, we should have a mechanism whereby people can correct the record and submit their own information before a final adjudication is made.

I can think of other parallels. Sometimes—nowadays, it is a sensible process—the police indicate that they might be likely to take a course of action in relation to somebody, then ask for that person's representations, and then decide whether to go ahead. In certain cases, a reasonable explanation might exist of which the police did not know. It would be good to have a sequence of events, rather than a heavily bureaucratic procedure, that allowed application to be made, objection to be collected, and then a response to the objection.

The last example that I can think of is in relation to this House and the Government. Select Committees often produce reports in which they inquire into Minister's activities. Invariably, those reports are submitted to Ministers to read at draft stage to make sure that they do not include inaccuracies or misrepresentations.

Mr. Bercow: I want to underline the importance of the point made by the hon. Gentleman about credit ratings and the refusal of credit. I shall not dilate on the matter, because you will not allow me to do so, Mr. Winterton, but I want to draw attention to the fact that an individual can be turned down for curious reasons. It is important that such an individual should know what those reasons are. I do not know whether he has had a similar experience, but on one occasion I sought to have an account with Harrods, although I would not want to do so now because of the appalling Mr. Mohamed Al Fayed. I was turned down, and it transpired that the reason was that I had not previously sought credit facilities, and the company was astonished that I should want them. It was nothing to do with not being a good credit risk. It is important to know such things.

Mr. Hughes: I have never sought an account with Harrods.

Mr. Clarke: For different reasons.

Mr. Hughes: Yes. Indeed, I think that I have only been through the door once in my life, and that was not after queueing for the sales.

The individual concerned needs to know the case against him before an initial adjudication is made. It is good to have an appeals system, but it does not deal with the immediate problem—if the individual is turned down for the job, it may be too late. The job may not become available again. For instance, if someone were to live in a rural area where there was a pub with a dance hall attached—I can think of a wonderful place in Herefordshire called Wormelow Tump that has just such a facility—that might be the only convenient place in relation to the person's home.

Amendment No. 36 relates to subsection (3)(b). I assume that the Minister will say that the authority will be required to set out criteria that may differ according to the particular job for which it is licensing people. We are anticipating the jobs that will be given to others. How will that be done? Consultation with the industry must inform that. However, we will license people to do many different jobs, some of which come within relatively well-defined and confined categories. There should be an easily identifiable set of criteria that apply generally, and some that apply specifically to different activities.

There will always be a need to update the process and revise the criteria, and I understand that that is built into the Bill—the right hon. Member for Walsall, South is more experienced than the rest of us on the matter—on the basis of experience elsewhere. Increasingly, there are international dimensions to the matter. I shall give an example. There is a well-known music and dance club in my constituency, at the Elephant and Castle, called the Ministry of Sound. It is the premier music and dance club in the country. [Interruption.] The Minister is challenging that—he obviously goes to the Norfolk equivalent—but I have frequented the club.

As the Ministry of Sound has expanded its business, the club has gone to Spain and the Balearic islands. It takes its own staff, and sometimes uses a troop of people who are in the same industry, but who move around. That often happens with people who run international companies and hotel chains, and the David Lloyd sports centres may do that. Many people do not stay in one fixed place. What consideration has the Minister given to how certification, regulation and qualification in this country will validate people and allow them to work for the same employer, even if they are in a different place? We are in an age of increasing mutual transferability and recognition of qualifications. Other countries may have tougher regimes than us, and we do not want people who have gone through the validation process in this country, and are then asked by their employer to go on a summer assignment—in Ibiza or wherever—to find that they are in difficulty.

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