Private Security Industry Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Bercow: It is not entirely clear that the Government have done what the Minister claims, but I hope that they will do so. While I accept his point about the potential for a multiplicity of slightly varied criteria for different sectors and either the impracticability or the undesirability of providing details of them in advance of the enactment of the Bill, they should be in the process of being worked on now or be worked on soon. It would be helpful and courteous if he sent copies of the drafts, perhaps with no absolute commitment, to all members of the Committee before Report stage.

Mr. Clarke: We have a timing problem, as we have with other Bills. We have tried, but it is been difficult sometimes for the Home Office to produce draft guidelines during our proceedings in Committee, because we genuinely want to consult different people about what we are doing. The hon. Gentleman himself rightly urged consultation on us. Obviously, we have ideas, but they are very much in shadow form, and not developed to the level of detail that he would want. I subscribe to the general desirability of his question about providing information to members of the Committee at the earliest possible time, but I cannot give the commitment that he is seeking, which is that within 10 days or a fortnight we produce a document that will be genuinely useful to members of the Committee or the House more generally. I am sorry that I cannot be more helpful, but timing is a genuine dilemma, given how it interrelates with the consultative process.

I hope that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey will withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Hughes: I am grateful for the Minister's considered reply and for the support of the hon. Member for Buckingham. It will be helpful if the Minister asks his civil servants to write him a note for us that sets out in compendium form the further processes that will come before Parliament so that we can consider them outside the Committee and ensure that they cover the criteria. Furthermore, what is envisaged in the Government's policy in relation to the steps that precede such criteria? We understand the timetable problem that he outlined, but he must bear in mind those who have a direct interest in our proceedings.

Mr. Clarke: I am happy to give the commitment sought by the hon. Gentleman. I shall write to him and other members of the Committee with as much detail as I can give on the issues that he raised. I provided some information in my response to the amendment, as he acknowledged, but I shall write to him with whatever further information I have.

Mr. Hughes: On that basis, given that we want the Bill to have broad consensus and be in the best possible shape in a fairly short time, I do not intend to press the amendment. I might wish to return to the issue on Report, as, I suspect, might other hon. Members. I am not persuaded that the situation is resolved, but rather that it might be possible to make do without the amendment. Given our tight timetable, it would be helpful if other such matters could be raised that might help us to make as early decisions as possible about what we will need to pursue in the remainder of the Committee and on Report. For instance, if we were given advance notice of any further amendments that the Government might be minded to table on Report, that would help us to achieve the maximum consensus.

11.15 am

Mr. Clarke: Because of the tight timetable, I am willing to give the commitment to notify the Opposition parties and the Committee of any further amendments that the Government might be considering.

Mr. George: I am not in the Chair, but I wish to point out that the discussion of the licensing criteria has not yet finished, because that matter will also arise in the debate on clause 9. The Minister might think that he has got away with it in the debate on this clause, but I hope that I will be called to speak in the debate on clause 9.

Mr. Hughes: Opportunities to discuss the matter arise in clauses 7, 8 and 9. I do not assume that we shall ever be finished with the matter, and if the right hon. Gentleman is re-elected to the House it will remain on the agenda, which would be a good thing.

In light of the Minister's helpfulness, and the willingness of the hon. Member for Buckingham to help me to keep an eye on the matter, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Chairman, being of the opinion that the principle of the clause and any matters arising thereon had been adequately discussed in the course of debate on the amendments proposed thereto, forthwith put the Question, pursuant to Standing Orders Nos. 68 and 69, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question agreed to.

Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 8

Licences to engage in licensable conduct

Mr. Bruce George: I beg to move amendment No. 13, in page 7, line 33, leave out `applicant' and insert `relevant person'.

The Chairman: With this we may discuss amendment No. 14, in page 7, line 34, at end insert—

    `(7A) For the purposes of subsection (7) above a relevant person is—

    (a) the employer, where an applicant is an individual who in the course of his employment with the employers carries out designated activities;

    (b) the applicant, in all other cases.'.

Mr. George: This will be one of my shorter speeches. Historically, most—although not all—sectors of the security industry have been appallingly badly paid. I recall writing 15 years ago, in partnership with the Low Pay Unit, a chapter of a book on low pay in the security industry, and the situation has not improved since then. The introduction of the minimum wage, and the fact that it will be increased in a few months time, will lead, to a degree, to a level playing field for guards, because an employer will not legally be able to pay less than the minimum wage, so long as it is properly enforced.

However, low pay for guards has led to a depression in standards and a downward spiral in quality. Because the industry is viciously competitive, contracts tend to be won on the basis of price rather than quality. Until a few years ago, local authorities were legally obliged to choose the lowest bid. If an authority hired on that basis, it would live to repent its decision, because it would have hired a low-quality service. That was certainly the case with regard to security.

The unfortunate man or woman who finds a job in the security sector is entering into an industry in which wages are chronically low, even allowing for the minimum wage. One must consider the other types of industry with which the security sector is in competition. Would someone who had the choice of working for a contract cleaning company or for a local authority sweeping the road, which involves no licence payment prior to employment, enter the security industry, which already has numerous bars such as late and long hours and low status? The fee for prospective employees could be £30, £40, £50 or £60. I do not feel that many people will say, ``Before I get that job, I shall have to pay some sort of introductory fee in order to be allowed to enter a low-wage industry.'' It will be an obstacle to the free movement of labour.

My amendment is supported by the GMB, just about the only union that operates seriously at the level of guarding. Few companies are unionised, but at least some people have the protection of belonging to a union. I have been approached by security companies such as Group 4, which say that they will pay the licence fee. As they will employ the person, they are prepared to take on the additional burden of stumping up whatever the fee will be.

As I said on Tuesday, when selecting staff, companies will not have people simply coming in off the street, filling in the form and sending it off to the regulatory authority for approval. They would be mad to do that. They should do what any decent company would do in hiring staff: check their background, make telephone calls and ask for letters of testimonial. That could cost £700 or £1,000. An additional £40 will hardly make a crucial difference, but it will put good companies at a competitive disadvantage, as they will have additional costs because they, rather than the individual involved, pay the licence fee.

I have no idea what the Government response will be and whether they will specify in the Bill that payment of the licence fee should be the hirer's responsibility. I can cite examples of when that takes place already. If the Minister is not prepared to do that, he might at least give the industry encouraging words that it should bear the cost.

People coming to the job are not on £25,000 a year and moving from a reasonably well-paid job. It is a working-class, non-specialist job. Some sectors of the industry have highly qualified staff. The possession of a masters degree is almost a minimum in some cases, and vast experience is required. Such people may be able to afford to pay £50, but the humble security guard who has been moving from unemployment to job creation schemes and low-paid jobs is not going to stump up the money, so it is incumbent on good employers—and all employers if the Minister is prepared to reconsider—to accept that the obligation should be on the company, not the individual, who will suffer enough working for the security industry without having to pay for the privilege.

The Chairman: Before I call the next speaker, I counsel the Committee, as its servant, that it has agreed a programme, and important matters are yet to be discussed. After this sitting, we have only a further three sittings. I hope that all hon. Members, whether Government or Opposition, will bear that in mind, because I want all important matters in the Bill to be properly debated and scrutinised.

Mr. Hawkins: On a point of order, Mr. Winterton. The official Opposition anticipate that, although some substantive issues are likely to be debated this afternoon and will take some time, the Committee will make rapid progress when we reach later clauses, to which few, if any, amendments are tabled. I anticipate that next Tuesday morning, in particular, we shall cover a lot of ground quickly.

The Chairman: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that remark, but I am a servant of the Committee, and I want the Bill to be properly debated in Committee. I call Mr. John Bercow—for a few seconds.

Mr. Bercow: The amendments would require employers to pay the registration fee for their employees. Necessarily, that would entail a burden, but equally, as the right hon. Member for Walsall, South said, why should the employee be burdened? That is especially a matter of concern, although it does not affect the principle, if the individuals involved are low-paid.

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

        Adjourned till this day at half-past Two o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Winterton, Mr. Nicholas (Chairman)
Bercow, Mr.
Clarke, Mr. Charles
George, Mr. Bruce
Hall, Mr. Mike
Hawkins, Mr.
Hughes, Mr. Simon
Miller, Mr.
Pickthall, Mr.
Prentice, Ms Bridget
Simpson, Mr. Keith
Starkey, Dr.
Stewart, Mr. Ian
Thomas, Mr. Gareth, R.
Turner, Mr. Neil
Winterton, Ms Rosie

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Prepared 26 April 2001