Private Security Industry Bill [Lords]

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Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster, Central): I am a member of the RAC public policy committee, and knowing the work that it has done over the years on wheelclamping, it is a bit rich for the hon. Gentleman to criticise the Government. The previous Conservative Government published a Green Paper on wheelclamping years ago and did nothing about it. Only when this Government came in with pro-car policies such as measures against wheelclamping has something been done. Members of the RAC have welcomed that, as has the AA.

I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman said about the need for wheelclamping operatives to carry identification, but I am concerned—as are the RAC and AA—that the danger of including some measures in the Bill is that one may leave out others of equal importance. Clearly, companies that are issued with licences should agree to follow a code of conduct that should be worked out between motoring organisations, the new authority and other interested bodies. For us to anticipate their deliberations may lead to important things being left out. For example, it is important that vehicles used by wheelclamping companies are clearly marked. At present, many wheelclamping operatives drive around in unmarked vehicles as a way of entrapping motorists. That important issue must be examined.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned signage and other issues that should be included in a code of conduct. However, we should also examine the new measures that wheelclamping companies are taking to entrap motorists, such as using photographs and sending out demands for money later. They are gradually changing their practices. There may be a restriction on the curbing of their activities if too much is included in this legislation, which I fear would be the result of the amendments.

Mr. Bercow: I should have thought that the hon. Lady's anxiety on that point could be assuaged, not least on the grounds that the Government regularly invoke in relation to other parts of the Bill and other measures, that there is always scope for revision. Given the choice between having half a cup and an entirely empty one, the former must be preferable. If her preference is for a code of conduct, does she believe that it should have statutory effect?

Ms Winterton: Licences should be granted to people who agree to stick to the code of conduct. If the code must continually return to the House for revision, it will become inflexible. The licensing authority needs flexibility to change it if necessary. That is my fear about the amendment and why I believe that we need to consider ensuring that—as I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to assure us—motoring organisations will be consulted by the authority when it drafts the measures under which licences will be granted.

Mr. Simon Hughes: I am sympathetic to the amendments. The consumer or user is likely to have someone say that he comes with authority, and people need to be able to see that that authority is carried. It presents a dilemma for Liberals and others that people increasingly pretend to be what they are not.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): Oh, yes?

Mr. Hughes: The hon. Gentleman provokes me. Tories tried to be regulatory when they were not, the Labour party tries to be new when it is unsure whether it is old or new, and we have all sorts of confusion. No wonder it looks, sadly, as though people will not vote in great numbers. Liberals do not tend to be guilty of the same error, and some of us are consistent over many years and try to be both liberal and progressive all the time.

The argument relates to whether we need to regulate. As the Minister knows, my view is that we should regulate only when we have to and that we should have a presumption against a law unless we need one. I have therefore wrestled a bit with the issue, but I have reached the conclusion that so many people pretend to be meter readers for electricity supply companies, of which there are now so many, or pretend to work for the local authority, for example, that we must have some way of checking. One of the ways of doing so is to have something that attests to the fact that they are what they claim to be. The difficulty is that people can buy a uniform at the local market, put a badge on the cap or the blazer, and fool people who have partial or failing sight or are uncertain. Plenty of cowboys and girls around the country use land, clamp vehicles and make money. It is an extremely profitable activity. Merely saying that people must have something that says that they are authenticated does not get us home, however, because people can pretend to be authenticated by having a false uniform, cap badge and identification card.

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Gentleman conjures up the alarming and even eerie spectacle of a uniform that has effectively been aped by an organisation that is not authentic or respectable for the purposes of the Bill. Does he agree that a signed warrant, although of course still susceptible to abuse, is a much more reliable instrument for these purposes than a fairly easy-to-imitate uniform?

Mr. Hughes: We seem to be going down the road of neighbourhood wardens, which the Minister knows that I welcome for people in authority, but not the police. My colleagues and I believe that we should go further and have local authority-employed community safety people.

We have discussed regulating people who work in pubs and bars for the licensing trade. There is a strong argument for people who have to be licensed to do their job to have an approval system from the local authority. In this day and age, many people claim to do jobs that were previously in the public sector. Such jobs are now in statutory undertakings in the private sector such as electricity, gas and water supply. Local government is the best level for approval, because there is an easily accessible identification number that can be authenticated. It would not be a great burden on the industry to have to register with the local authority those employees who are to engage in licensable activities.

That is not a fully worked-out thesis but a proposal that we go down the road in the simplest possible manner. That will give us the greatest chance of consistency, because somebody local will say that everybody who does a job in the area must have an easily identifiable and certifiable signed warrant that can be checked. I do not pretend that that is perfect, but it is as good as it can be in the foreseeable circumstances. People must have the right to challenge such a person, so there must be something that is visible about that person. That concept works well with the police, and it is a good idea for somebody who does a respectable job to have an identifiable number that makes them unique. I do not see a problem with people working in Southwark or Doncaster having to wear a number on the outside of their uniform or clothing, without which they should not act with authority.

Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East): I see the merit in simplicity. The hon. Gentleman discussed what Southwark, Doncaster or Lewisham may do under such a system. The problem is that although there may be consistency within a small area, there would not be consistency throughout the nation. Has he considered that?

Mr. Hughes: Of course, there would be the argument about how that would be done nationally. The truth of the matter, as the hon. Lady, who comes from the borough next to mine, knows, is that we are moving down the road in which we have borough voluntary schemes, through which boroughs authenticate people such as bouncers. In each of our boroughs, we have local authority employees who use separate identification methods, and that seems to be manageable at a local level. If a security company wishes to operate pubs, clubs or car parks across boroughs, that must be cleared. There is not an endless number of principal local authorities, and I accept that lower-tier local authorities should not deal with the matter, because there are too many of them.

I have not thought of an alternative for when we have regional government, which I hope will be soon, if the Labour party lives up to its earlier promises that have been delayed—although half the job has been done in London. I hope that we shall be able to introduce a system in regional government, and I understand that we must have a debate. I argue that there should be a system, and I suggest that local government is the best tier under which to operate it, but I am open to persuasion that there may be a better tier.

It is no good having identification that may be seen only if one has sight like a hawk and can read from a great distance, and to have to peer at somebody's right breast in order to identify who that person is, what he or she does and what their number is. Increasingly, we go to conferences and everybody is almost vulgar about their personal relationships, because the only way we can work out who we are talking to—I am serious—is to look down a woman's cleavage or peer at a man's lapel. That is fine in the private world of mutual identification, but, in the public world when somebody is doing a proper job, people should not have to go to such extremes to know who someone is.

3.15 pm

Mr. Ian Stewart: We know the name and address of a good psychiatrist if the hon. Gentleman wants to continue his analysis. I apologise, Mr. Benton.

On a serious point, a sensible argument has been made on both sides of the Committee that there must be a national set of standards. However, the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's argument was that the regime should be administered locally. I have sympathy with that, but the wording of the amendment does not lend itself to that. I suppose that the spirit of the amendment is in line with that analysis, but I am sure that he will accept that there is a wide spectrum of circumstances: it is important to be able to identify door stewards and wheelclampers in case there is inappropriate action—

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