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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 5 April 2005

[Sir Nicholas Winterton in the Chair]

Door Supervisors

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Watson.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Nicholas Winterton): The first debate in Westminster Hall on this, the last Tuesday of this Parliament—perhaps I am anticipating it, but I think not—is on the registration of door supervisors, initiated by the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley).

9.30 am

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak on such an important issue, and I hope that the debate gets the national publicity that it deserves—although, as you said in your opening remarks, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it could well be overshadowed by other events. None the less, it is an important issue and I am grateful for the opportunity to raise it.

The debate is about the registration of door supervisors, but it would be more apt to say that it is about the lack of registration of door supervisors, because that is the crux of the problem. For a number of reasons, which I shall detail in a moment, not enough individuals are coming forward to register as door supervisors.

Under the Private Security Industry Act 2001, door supervisors need a licence—what those in the industry call a badge. All sectors of the leisure industry welcomed the Act; indeed, many of the companies in the industry helped draft it. It was a welcome piece of legislation, and its purpose was obvious—to improve the calibre and quality of door supervisors, to provide them with training, and to improve the industry. Unfortunately, the Act is not working. Not all door supervisors are registering for a licence, and those who do apply are having to wait due to delays at the Security Industry Authority.

The SIA was set up to implement the legislation and to oversee the registration of door supervisors. However, the SIA and the police have taken the attitude that their patience is exhausted at the lack of people coming forward, and rather than look for solutions they seem intent on bringing prosecutions. That will make the situation worse because those door supervisors who are prosecuted will be precluded from holding a certificate for between two and five years. The shortage will thus become worse.

The Government now face a difficult situation. Fewer than 20,000 doorkeepers have been certificated and licensed, but the Government are now implementing the Licensing Act 2003. As a result, every liquor licence in the country is due to be reissued. That comes at a time when the Government are already under pressure in respect of binge drinking. To allow a situation to arise in which pubs and clubs will be unable to find door
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supervisors is a recipe for chaos. It will cause problems later this year; indeed, we are already hearing of shortages and their attendant problems.

It is not a new problem. The issue has been flagged up practically since the 2001 Act was passed and its implementation dates announced. Although the closing date for the London area is 11 April—to some extent, that has always been regarded as the deadline for implementing the whole Act—the Act was in force for the best part of last year, and the first area to comply was Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. So prosecutions have been available to the police for the past 12 months, and the problems have been well documented and are well known; the Government and the SIA have known of them for two years. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) raised the issue in an Adjournment debate in the House in June 2004. He referred to the problems being experienced in the pilot area of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, and I shall refer to the same problems.

Recently, a leisure company called Luminar supplied me with a file of correspondence that had passed between it and the SIA. It was a substantial volume of correspondence, which dated from 2003 and detailed all the issues to which I shall refer, including delays and the problems that we are storing up for later this year caused by the lack of door supervisors. Indeed, The Publican Newspaper—the trade paper for the pub and club industry—has been running a series of articles for some time highlighting the problems that we face.

What are those problems? Why and how are they occurring? As of 10 February, the SIA had received 21,957 applications to register as a door supervisor. Of those, 17,035 were accepted as valid, 10,124 were granted and 872 were refused. The registration process started in March 2004, but only 10,000 certificates had been granted by 10 February. That is less than one doorman per nightclub, leaving aside pubs, restaurants or anything else. That is the extent of the shortfall.

Why are delays occurring? Why are door supervisors not coming forward to register? There have been many allegations that the SIA has caused delays, and, to some extent, that is true. There have been delays in issuing the certificates, or badges, as they are known in the industry. The SIA has always maintained that the average time needed to obtain a certificate is between four and six weeks. Obviously, to make the legislation work, there must be identity and criminal record checks. In reality, however, issuing a certificate can take anything between three and five months.

Let me give an example. Since this debate was publicised, a Hertfordshire company known as Bradzone contacted me to tell me about its problems. It tried to help its door supervisors to complete their application forms, which were submitted to the SIA by mid-January. The company informed me last Friday that, in the vast majority of cases, it was still waiting for the certificates to be issued three months later.

There is a great deal of bureaucracy involved in applying for a certificate. The initial inquiry must be made by the applicant. Many door supervisors are employed by security companies, but companies are not allowed to assist them in completing or obtaining the forms; individuals must obtain the forms themselves, fill them in and send them off. They can obtain a form by visiting the website or using the telephone line. Quite
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often, however, the line is busy and there is no facility to leave a message. The individual is simply put off. So it is difficult to obtain the forms in the first place.

There are also several stories of forms issued to and completed by individuals, and returned for relatively minor mistakes or, more likely, omissions. Some stories are legendary.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight referred in an Adjournment debate to a doorkeeper who told him that one of his staff had supplied a passport, a plastic and paper driving licence, a birth certificate and two household bills. His form was returned, marked "insufficient identity". Doorkeepers and the leisure industry feel increasingly frustrated by the bureaucracy of the SIA.

Another story, which is passing into folklore, is of forms being returned because the abbreviation "UK" has been used on the form instead of "United Kingdom". Petty bureaucracy does appear to be involved in the completion of the form.

The procedure is complex. The application form supplied by the SIA informs the individual that they must apply for a licence application form and booklet, complete the form, send the money and so on. It also says that the licence application form is returned to the individual part-completed. I have in my hand an application that was returned to an individual, but the only thing that has been completed is his name. Why the SIA cannot allow the individual to complete his own name on the application form is beyond me. Why can it not allow the forms to be issued in bundles or batches to door supervisory companies so that they can supply them to individuals to send back? I do not understand why the SIA insists on this part-completion, as they call it, of the form.

It is not the easiest form to complete. It is the first form that I have ever seen that asks an individual to supply his surname in four separate sections: surname, family name at birth, any other surname used, alias surname and alias given name. It is quite a complex form, which takes some understanding. I should say that the forms are intended for doorkeepers, who used to be known as bouncers. We are not giving them to Cambridge undergraduates. The nature of the industry does not lend itself to complex bureaucracy. The legislation is designed to improve the quality of our door supervisors, but we must address the bureaucracy of the system because it is discouraging people from applying.

There is also the question of cost. There is a fee of £190, which is non-refundable, to apply for a certificate. That is after an individual has completed his training course, which can cost up to £400. Altogether, the whole process costs at least £400 or £500. Again, that is for door supervisors, who probably work part-time and whose main hours of work will probably be on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. They will probably earn about £10 an hour, so the procedure is not cheap. This can be a disincentive to some doorkeepers, especially at a time of relatively full employment when they can seek work elsewhere.

According to the booklet, doorkeepers are disbarred from registration if they have convictions and cautions, but they can also be precluded from applying for a
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certificate if they have been warned about an incident or offence. The disqualifications and bureaucratic procedures have put off many doorkeepers, who probably thought from the outset that there was not much point in applying for a certificate. If they were convicted of affray or actual bodily harm years ago because of a scrap outside a nightclub when they were protecting the doors, they may think that there is no point in applying. We must consider the issue in the light of the fact that we are trying to improve the employment situation of doorkeepers.

The SIA could remove some of the bureaucracy and improve its functioning, but it is not responsible for all the delays. I referred earlier to the delays that are caused by the doorkeepers. By delays, I also mean their reluctance to apply. There is some debate as to whether enforcement of the Act will encourage doorkeepers to come forward to register or whether it will have the reverse effect. I am sure that some in the SIA, the Government and the industry believe that there will be a flood of applications once we reach the final deadline and prosecutions begin. My view is the opposite; prosecutions will discourage doorkeepers.

The industry estimates that it needs 100,000 doorkeepers to maintain the doors of clubs, pubs and other facilities throughout the country. The SIA estimates that 50,000 are needed. There is a huge discrepancy between those figures. In a June 2004 Adjournment debate, the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety referred to a requirement for 95,000. Even if we split the difference and say that 70,000 doorkeepers are required, we are more than 40,000 short at present.

After three years of the Act, which came into force in 2001 with all the attendant publicity, doorkeepers have not come forward to register. Applications have been invited in the first area since March 2004. Twelve months on, the SIA and the police have expressed to MPs in a recent meeting their impatience with the situation. Prosecutions have been occurring, but doorkeepers are still reluctant to apply.

There is a theory that doormen are waiting for enforcement before applying. I am not sure that that theory works. I cannot see the point in a doorman waiting to be prosecuted for not having a badge, knowing full well that such prosecution would preclude him from obtaining one. Doormen are not waiting for prosecutions before they come forward to register. Instead, perhaps they are being deterred for the reasons that I referred to earlier. As I said, some doormen who already have minor convictions may think that they will be precluded from obtaining a certificate and so do not apply. I also referred to the red tape and complications involved in filling in the form, and the cost.

Complaints have been made by doorkeepers about their pay. Perhaps they are waiting for a crisis in the door supervisor industry that will force pay up from the present levels. That may prove to be a problem. The leisure industry will be chasing a scarce commodity, and doormen who have the necessary certification will increase their charges unless the situation is remedied. The consumer will carry the can for that in higher door admission charges and drinks prices. I had a meeting last week with the director of a company that supplies door supervisors. He said, "We are sitting back. Later this year, we will make a killing, as our door supervisors are
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badged and ready to move in." That will be an added cost to the industry. The nature of the employment is that it is casual and relatively dangerous compared to some. Legislation also requires a doorkeeper to wear a badge; once he is certificated, that is a condition of keeping the certificate. In some of the more dangerous areas, the idea of wearing a badge and turning away unruly or armed youths is not exactly an inviting prospect for some door supervisors, who do not want the people whom they turn away to be able to identify them. That is another reason for doorkeepers' reluctance in coming forward.

So, for all the reasons that I have outlined, there is a huge shortfall. At the moment, it is roughly a 40,000 shortfall, on best estimates, and that is a big problem. The attitude of the SIA and the police has so far not been helpful, in my view. In the Adjournment debate last June, the hon. Member for Isle of Wight said:

Even in the middle of last year, the SIA's attitude was brought into question, but that is exactly its attitude at present.

On 3 March in the House we had a lively meeting, organised by the parliamentary beer club, with representatives of the SIA, the leisure industry and some security companies. It seemed to me that the SIA was convinced that the only way forward was to prosecute those doorkeepers who had not applied for certificates. I believe that that will compound the difficulties. Last Saturday, I had a discussion with the licensing officer for South Yorkshire, who informed me that that weekend South Yorkshire police were going to target the pubs and clubs in Sheffield, Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham. In Sheffield they contacted 200 door supervisors to check their credentials—42 were found not to have certificates and will be prosecuted. That is 42 fewer door supervisors just from last weekend.

In Barnsley, the police went to check the door supervisors. After the second had been checked, every other supervisor disappeared. There was not a supervisor on the doors in Barnsley at the time that South Yorkshire police began to mount the checks. That is not unusual. The stories date back to 1993, when every doorkeeper in Newcastle was stood down because of a particularly well-known incident in the industry. The idea of prosecutions will simply drive doorkeepers back underground. We need to look at a different way forward.

One of the things that the SIA does not appear to see is the effect on the leisure industry. The SIA has accused the leisure industry of mismanagement and one thing and another. The leisure industry owns the clubs and the pubs; it is not responsible for the doorkeepers. The doorkeepers and the security aspects are separate from the leisure industry, but it is likely to suffer the consequences.

Every town centre licence in Barnsley has a condition that the premises must employ registered door supervisors. Over this weekend, every licence in the town centre was under threat because the licence conditions could not be met—door supervisors could not be found. The innocent parties—those in the leisure
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industry—will suffer the consequences of closure, loss of income and everything that goes with that. That is unfair and slightly irresponsible. The SIA and the Government must get together and see whether they can find a way forward, unless they have a secret agenda to use that method as a back-door method of closing pubs and clubs in town centre areas. That is not bad for a Government who texted people at the beginning of the last election campaign, "If you don't give a XXXX for the licensing hours, vote Labour."

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): A very good point.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order.

Mr. Illsley : I still stand by that. I am a big supporter of the Licensing Act 2003, and I want it to work. I want this legislation to work as well. I very much welcome the decisions taken in the past few days, one of which is to extend the 11 April London deadline for two months. Although that is welcome, it is not enough, and I do not think that it will work. However, more people might come forward, given the publicity that this debate might achieve. The second decision was that an individual who has completed the form, made the payment and gone through the training will not be prosecuted if he is found to be working the doors but has not yet received the badge. That is a welcome move, as is the idea of a provisional certificate. I would like a moratorium on prosecutions; the police should hold back on prosecutions until we can increase the numbers coming forward and address the reluctance of doorkeepers to register. Prosecutions are counterproductive.

We should also reassess the legislation, even though it is late in the day, because it does not appear to be working in respect of wheel clampers and door supervisors. As well as extending the deadline for London, we could extend the deadline for all areas, perhaps giving ourselves until the end of the year to try to improve the number of doorkeepers coming forward. If it does not, the situation could become chaotic, especially in the summer months. The industry has an obligation to discourage cowboys who try to operate with unregistered doorkeepers, and to insist on badged doormen. The problem is that there are not enough of them about. We have to change attitudes. The SIA has to change its attitude and encourage registration. At the moment, all it wants to do is to enforce the legislation, rather than trying to make it work.

I will finish as I started, by saying that to have a shortage of bouncers and doormen at a time when we are being criticised for disorder as a result of binge drinking, and when every licence in the country is up for renewal and possible extension into extra hours, to leave the situation as it is is a recipe for disaster.

9.58 am

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on having called the debate. The issue of door supervisors is one of enormous importance for my constituents. Soon after I was elected in 1997, I raised it in a private Member's Bill that called for the setting up of a national register of
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door supervisors, so I was pleased to see that measure incorporated into the Bill that set up the Security Industry Authority.

I should like to reiterate why the Private Security Industry Act 2001 was needed and why, in general, I still welcome the principle of it. Huge numbers of door supervisors are entirely responsible and do an incredibly important job. However, there were, unfortunately, a great many people in the trade who had a criminal record. Many of them were still involved in criminal activity, particularly in relation to the drug trade—either peddling drugs or simply turning a blind eye to the fact that others were doing so. In some parts of the country violence was a huge problem: door supervisors were assaulting the public rather than protecting them, in some cases causing fatalities and serious injuries.

I was drawn to the issue because my constituency has a young population, and the issue is important to them—not exclusively, because people of all ages like to have a good night out in pubs and clubs, but most of us of more mature years would recognise that young people tend to do that more often. It is enormously important that when young people have a good night out in a pub or a club, they can be confident that they are not going to be put at risk by the door supervisors, who are the very people who are supposed to ensure that the clientele do not put themselves or other people at risk.

So, there is an important principle that relates to all door supervisors. I will just point out that not all door supervisors are men. The increasing number of women door supervisors are making an important contribution to the trade. The Private Security Industry Act 2001 was of enormous importance in ensuring that door supervisors did not have relevant criminal records, had proper training, and were protecting the public and public order in pubs and clubs. That is what the vast majority of responsible door-supervising organisations support and, of course, it is also what the leisure industry as a whole supported, which is why it supported the Act that set up the SIA and why it lobbied for door supervisors to be the first section of the security industry to be covered by the SIA.

I wanted to reiterate those points, but I do concur with many of the points that my hon. Friend made about the difficulties that have occurred in implementation. I hope that the Opposition spokespeople act responsibly, like us, and do not lurch off into all sorts of expositions about how flexible licensing hours will lead to more binge drinking. As the report from the Home Affairs Committee points out today, the way to deal with that is through the planning system, through stopping drinks promotions and through having more—not fewer—registered door supervisors. To a certain extent, flexible licensing hours are a relatively minor part of the scene and it could be said that they will help to improve things in that they will stop what happens at the moment, which is huge numbers of extremely drunk people all turning out of pubs and clubs at the same moment and queueing up for non-existent taxis.

There are serious problems. I will not reiterate the points made by my hon. Friend about the delays in dealing with applications in the SIA or about the shortfall of door supervisors coming forward to be
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registered, although I will reiterate his point that many door supervisors have other jobs and do door supervising as a top-up on a relatively part-time basis. For those people, finding the money up front to pay for training and registration is not worth their while. It could be argued that, since pubs and clubs have to have registered door supervisors, it is for the trade to find a way round that situation. Clearly, pubs and clubs could give loans to the people who normally work for them to pay for training and then recover that money from their earnings. That is a perfectly reasonable solution. The trade must take some responsibility for helping to see us through the implementation period and for dealing with the fact that, although there are full-time door supervisors, there are many who are part-time, who will not themselves be able to find the money up front.

The points that I want to make that have not been made by my hon. Friend relate to two issues that have been raised with me by the management of clubs in my constituency and by the licensing officer at my local council. They relate to the fact that the SIA does not seem to give enough weight to the practicalities or to the reality of how the leisure industry operates. The first issue relates to the operation of large indoor and outdoor venues—pop concerts and festivals, rather than pubs and clubs. It is difficult to decide exactly who, among the people employed to run such a large indoor or outdoor event, has to be registered with the SIA. The SIA seems to think that it is a simple matter to decide whether staff are concerned with security and need to be registered or are taking the money for tickets and so on, and therefore do not. That does not reflect the reality of how these events are organised. There will be some people who are clearly 100 per cent. concerned with security, and some who are 100 per cent. not concerned with it, but there will be a whole load of people in the middle who are partly concerned with security. There needs to be some clarity and practicality about the way those individuals are licensed.

The second issue concerns the training that the SIA requires. I have been given the strong impression by people in the trade in my constituency that the SIA does not understand the skills required by door supervisors in large pubs and clubs and large pop concert venues, and it does not give enough emphasis to what one might describe as the heavy end of security or the skills required to deal with situations when they start to get—I know no other way to describe it—hairy. It is incredibly important that door supervising staff are able to bring the really difficult situations under control before they get completely out of hand. The SIA seems not to appreciate the need for the training to provide such skills, as well as the other skills covered in the training. Again, that is due to a lack of proper dialogue between the SIA and the trade.

I ask the Minister to reflect on those issues, and use her influence to ensure that the SIA is more pragmatic and practical and works with the responsible parts of the trade. However, I ask the trade to recognise that there was always going to be a problem. The fact is that a significant proportion of door supervisors will not be licensed because they have criminal records. Part of the point of the system was to get those people out of door supervising because we need a business that is respectable, respected and does its job properly, and the
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individuals within it need to be properly recognised, properly trained and properly paid. That is an issue that the trade, as well as the SIA, needs to face.

10.7 am

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate, which was opened with such characteristic passion and clarity by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), and I also felt that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) got to the heart of the matter.

My late father had a way of cheering me up when I was a bit down. He used to say, "It's great to be alive. There are millions of people out there who would love to be alive today and aren't." I am tempted to paraphrase that a little this morning. It is great to be here on the morning that the general election is being called. Coming from a marginal seat, I reflect that there are thousands of people out there who would like to be here, but are not quite yet. In that context, I am delighted to make a few remarks in this debate.

I want to make a few suggestions on how we take the matter forward without repeating some of the arguments that have been made. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central mentioned The Publican Newspaper, a very distinguished newspaper that serves the licensed trade. There is another paper that serves the licensed trade, the Morning Advertiser. They are both equally distinguished, except for the fact that I write a column in the Morning Advertiser. I shall refer to one or two suggestions I made in that column.

It is interesting that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central mentioned towards the end of his speech the very recent extension of the deadline in London during the past few days. I reflect, as an MP from what used to be called the provinces, that it is only when an issue begins to affect London that people in the bureaucracy—and, dare I say it, the Home Office—begin to take the matter seriously. The matter has been reported in The Publican Newspaper and the Morning Advertiser, and it has been in MPs' postbags for about a year now. It is only when the deadline in London is almost upon us—within a couple of weeks—that an extension is made. That may be deeply welcome in the capital, and I am delighted that we are not going to have pubs and clubs shutting in marginal seats in the capital during the next month, but I worry a little about all the punters in the rest of the country.

A couple of measures could be taken to ease matters. They would not undermine the principles of the Private Security Industry Act 2001, which my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West rightly praised when outlining the reasons for them. She was also right to point out that an increasing number of women play quite a role in the industry and that they are helping to change the face of the industry. Where a door supervisor has bothered to take a course and make an application, the simplest thing to do would be for the SIA within days to send an acknowledgment of it. As long as a door supervisor has an acknowledgment that they have made an application and they can show it to the relevant authorities, that should be good enough to prevent prosecutions in the rest of the country; otherwise, London will be a special case.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central was describing some of the cases of delays and referring to folklore, I heard my hon. Friend the
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Minister from a sedentary position say, "Yes, it is folklore." However, there are many cases of delays, and the SIA admits that. The percentages are in doubt, but some people are definitely waiting more than 10 weeks. Quite a lot of people are having their forms returned for reasons, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central said, such as putting "UK" rather than "United Kingdom". Some people have had their forms returned on seven or eight occasions. If somebody has taken the   trouble to undertake the course and put in the application, that should be good enough. I ask the Minister to consider carefully that suggestion.

I also understand that where the people on the books of agencies and security firms have made applications but have yet to receive their final registration from the SIA, there is a provision in the Act for approving agencies and security firms that have reached a sufficiently high standard to satisfy the SIA. No such firms have been approved, however. If some of the more reputable firms could acquire that status, it could help to break the logjam. I welcome the moves made in London by the Home Office, but we need some action that will help in the rest of the country.

I want to bring one further case to the attention of the House to show how passions are running high. On 7 March I received a press release, which I think other Members of the House received, from Mr. Andy Walker, the chief executive of the Federation of Door Supervisors and Security, the trade union for the private security industry. He is also managing director of Protexus Training Ltd. He made many criticisms about the operation of the Act, some of which we have heard this morning. He has a distinguished background, having served in the Army and for 10 years in the police. He was one of the first people to argue for the Act; he was a consultant to the Home Office, undertaking research into the Act in the 1990s; and he then became a consultant to the SIA. Within days of issuing a measured press release on, among other issues, the need for strong enforcement, he was suspended from his job by Protexus Training Ltd. All sorts of rumours are going round the industry that the suspension was a result of pressure from the SIA. The SIA is very tetchy about these matters, but it should be strong enough to face criticism and debate matters with its critics in the industry. It should not resort to undermining the careers of people with a long and distinguished history in the industry.

We have made some progress in recent weeks, but I say to the Minister that to make the Act work, we need more flexibility from the SIA and the Home Office.

10.14 am

Mr. Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab): I join other Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on securing this important debate.

The issue was brought to me just before Christmas, when there were considerable concerns about it in Birmingham. I had the opportunity to meet the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety, who took some action with the Security Industry Authority and asked me to speak to the chief constable in my area to seek, locally, an agreement not to prosecute people who had made an application in the
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area. I welcome the help that was available from the Home Office in trying to allay a significant concern for many people. It is a major employment issue in my constituency, where more than a quarter of people are involved in work for the leisure and hospitality industry,

The need for proper implementation and the importance of that for people who act as doorkeepers at the venues in question has already been mentioned. Without the right legislation, the wrong type of people can be involved in such employment, aggravating matters instead of policing them and making them better. In Birmingham I want to ensure that doorkeepers will be properly licensed, and able to support the police in providing the service that we all want.

In general the legislation is good, but the way in which it is implemented is an issue. In Birmingham we had a good network in which the licensing of doorkeepers was established, with very effective processes. Although I can accept the present central point of registration, we need, if we are to be able to make progress in the light of some of the debates that have gone on, the devolution back to the licensing committee of the review of some applications.

Because of the nature of the job, issues of involvement in minor offences may arise. If there is a question of people who have had huge experience in the industry being struck off the central register without a real appeal I should perhaps draw the Minister's attention to the need for a bit of local common sense, so that the local licensing committee could review a matter, take a decision and pass the information back to the SIA centrally. If we are to reach the 70,000 figure mentioned by my right hon. Friend—I am sorry, I mean my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central; there is always the next term—it is important that experienced people continue and that we do not lose the experience of those who want to take the matter seriously, take up the training courses and do a job that they are proud of. We want to encourage them, because they are needed to assist the police force and the community in providing the service we want.

The only way in which we will move forward is by a common-sense approach in which local authorities are allowed to be involved again with the SIA, in producing a register and enabling people to appeal.

10.19 am

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD): I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on securing the debate. It is an important issue, and I have learned a great deal this morning from the knowledge that has been conveyed and the issues that have been raised.

I echo what the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) said about recognising how far we have come in reaching the point that we are now at. When I was first elected—probably before then, when I went to pubs at the age of 18 or 20—bouncers had a notorious image. The industry has come on in leaps and bounds and changed completely in its professionalism and the way it operates. It is worth noting that that has changed and that we do not use the word bouncers, but rightly call them door supervisors. I am sure that we all welcome those changes.
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My experience, from going out with police in different parts of the country, is that door supervisors are a critical part of the management of the night-time economy. Door supervisors in city centres work closely with the police and CCTV operators, and are often miked up with earpieces and walkie-talkies. Their contribution is a key part of managing what happens in our city centres and requires an awful lot of training, skills and trust. Working closely with others, they have become a pivotal part of that process.

We often think that the main function of door supervisors is to deal with drunkenness and disorder. Of course, making sure that people going into pubs and clubs are not drunk is a key role, but they are also responsible for dealing with under-age drinking and making sure that age limits are properly managed. That is extremely difficult. When I am out with police and they ask me to judge how old somebody is, I find it near impossible to tell a 13-year-old from a 21-year-old, but door supervisors have to deal with those difficult and complex tasks. They are also often responsible for safety issues such as ensuring that the limit of people allowed into a pub or club is managed properly, and that a record is kept of how many people go in, so that health and safety regulations are observed.

In some city centres, door supervisors provide reassurance to members of the public who may have been to the cinema or theatre, who do not necessarily want to go into a pub or club and who may feel uneasy when they see a large queue of people waiting to go in to a pub or club. The presence of a door supervisor who is in control of the situation can be greatly reassuring. Door supervisors play a key and growing role, and we should praise and thank them for their work.

The hon. Member for Barnsley, Central highlighted a number of problems in the system. I do not know whether they are folklore or serious issues, but let me address some of those raised, such as the point about the operation of the SIA. I hope that the Minister will address some of those points, reassure us and let us know whether they are real problems. We are told that the SIA has had difficulties with phone calls. One would think that a simple system could manage that. These days, many people request applications and forms by e-mail, or using webline and online access; why is not that service more widely available?

The hon. Member for Barnsley, Central made a good point about groups of applications from different clubs being made together. A lot of clubs are now part of networks and can manage that process. That seems to be a sensible and responsible approach in which we should ask pub and club groups to get involved. Multiple applications should be processed simply, and I am concerned about the delays.

I am also concerned to hear about what has been happening in South Yorkshire with the police and their work over the past couple of weekends. If it is true that there have been spot checks and that certificates are not in place, and that individuals face prosecution or are disappearing because they do not want those police checks, that will break down the important relationship between the police and door supervisors, which should be one of trust and working together, rather than one of mistrust and nervousness. If that is happening in South Yorkshire, it is sending all the wrong messages.
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The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West talked about handling large venues such as pop festivals. In my constituency, for the past six years, we have had the Homelands festival in the bank holiday weekend at the end of May, to which 40,000 people come. Having attended that to see what takes place, I know that hundreds of people are involved in that organisation. For clarity, it would be extremely helpful to know which people should be registered. The hon. Lady made an excellent point on that.

The hon. Lady asked what kind of training takes place. I do not know; I am ignorant about that, but she is right to highlight the difficult circumstances in which door supervisors will find themselves. Indeed, they will be the same difficult circumstances in which police find themselves on Friday and Saturday nights, so door supervisors' training should be of as good quality, so that they can handle situations with hot-headed people. I do not know what involvement the police have in that training—I assume and hope that there is some, but perhaps the Minister can tell us.

I do not know whether, for example, the training involves taking individuals out on a Friday or Saturday night, with someone supervising, to see how they cope. I hope that the training would involve that, and that a door supervisor would not be thrown into a violent situation on a Saturday night without having experienced something similar with guidance or training.

The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West rightly mentioned that many such individuals have had criminal records and that being a door supervisor had been an underground profession. I hope that having a criminal record in the past would not be a barrier to individuals applying for and getting jobs in the future. I strongly believe that if individuals have served their time or been through a process, we should not rule them out because of what may have taken place four or five years ago. Again, I would welcome the Minister's comments on that.

The hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) amused us with his comments about the Morning Advertiser, but he made a serious point about London often being the starting process. However, my evidence is that London has been coping with the problem slightly better. Where the problem has been difficult is in cities where the night-time economy has grown. London has had a night-time economy for many years, but in some of the newer cities, particularly in the north in England, the night-time economy has taken off in the past three or four years. The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the need to ensure that legislation catches up in those areas. I am not just talking about the northern cities, but about some of the cathedral cities in the south of England, which are experiencing a growing problem.

It is right that resources should be put across. With some of the changes taking place and the deadline moving in London from April to 6 June, I hope that the Minister will reflect on the possibility of changing that deadline in some other cities where there are difficulties. The hon. Member for Selby mentioned the word "marginal" only three or four times, which was extraordinarily restrained of him. Given what is taking place this morning, we wish him well in the future.
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The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr.   Mahmood) made a telling point. We do not necessarily need to manage the whole process from a central bank. Let us draw on local knowledge, to see whether we understand circumstances more locally, and let us have more local approvals in the system. Let us ensure both that there is a good appeals system in place and that we consider such a tricky issue from a common-sense perspective.

Mr. Illsley : I should perhaps clarify something that I obviously did not make clear. The extension of the two-month period in London is by the Metropolitan police, who will not prosecute between 11 April and 6 June. The SIA has not moved the deadline, which concerns a moratorium on prosecutions.

Mr. Oaten : I am grateful for clarity on that, but as I understand it the point remains valid. If there is a problem in London, there will be problems in other cities. We hope that the Government work with police forces throughout the country to introduce a similar delay. If the problems are as severe as the hon. Gentleman suggests, moving to June 6 will not tackle the problem. Indeed, he mentioned delaying until the end of the year.

There are two issues that the Government are considering. The first is the idea, which we support, of charging a levy on pubs and clubs that are causing difficulties. Perhaps we are slightly blinkered in assuming that the levy should go towards police costs. There is a strong case for considering other ways of using the levy to help the night-time economy; for example, through night buses and so on. The levy could also go towards processing door supervisors or the cost on individuals undergoing that.

The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West pleaded with the Opposition not to make cheap points about 24-hour licensing. I shall not do that, but I make the observation that with so many changes taking place that still need to bed down, is there not a case for a pause, before we move ahead later this year?

10.29 am

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): As many members of the Committee have said—

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. This is not a Committee; this is the complementary Chamber of the House of Commons.

Mr. Mitchell : I am most grateful to you, Sir Nicholas, for correcting me.

As several hon. Members have implied, there is a spring in all our steps today. As you will know, Sir, Nicholas, the Ching Ming festival is celebrated today and that accounts for my enthusiasm in attending the debate, which has been remarkably constructive.

Turning to other matters, this may of course be the last time that the Minister and I perform together, as we have done a great deal over the past six months. That will be a sadness for me. I see her here today, supported, as ever, by her loyal and faithful Parliamentary Private Secretary, who is sitting behind her.
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I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on securing this important debate and on the constructive and helpful way in which he opened proceedings. He and I entered the House in 1987, although I took an enforced sabbatical between 1997 and 2001, when the Private Security Industry Act 2001 was passed. Although the hon. Gentleman cannot be acquitted of the charge of having been in the House when the legislation was passed, the Minister and I were not here.

I have looked at the record of the debates on the Act, and it is clear that the Opposition highlighted the enforcement issues. The hon. Gentleman has raised many of them today, and I shall come to them in a moment. I have also toured the night spots of Sutton Coldfield—as you may have done in the past, Sir Nicholas—and together with the chief of police I have seen at first hand the valuable work that has been conducted. It has been described by all those who have spoken.

The private security industry has been campaigning for national regulation for more than 30 years, as have a succession of hon. Members, security trade associations and lobby groups. They all assert that they want the system to work but that it is currently neither user-friendly nor proportionate.

The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) is absolutely right that there is support for the policy across the House. She issued an injunction to the trade at the tail end of her speech, but I think that the trade completely accepts what she said, and I hope that the Minister agrees.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Mahmood) made a most helpful point in stressing that common sense should be the guiding principle. However, the Minister will have winced as Labour Members, in a devastating indictment, politely and deftly condemned not the Government's policy, but their competence in handling this issue.

I wish to bring five key issues to the attention of the Chamber. A very low number of door supervisors have applied for and received their SIA licences. The biggest question is why are they not registering? Those who have applied have often had to wait a long time before receiving their licence, and I am advised that the SIA has a backlog of 9,500 applications. The application process is complex and expensive. There is a lack of SIA licence non-compliance enforcement, and if the 11 April 2005 licence deadline is maintained, there will be only about 13,500 licensed door supervisors in England and Wales, according to figures issued yesterday. That is in an industry that employs just under 100,000 door supervisors.

The SIA has received only 23,000 applications for licences, and 13,500 licences have been issued. If the Government and the SIA do not extend the application deadline beyond 11 April—as has been said, they have done that for the London area in conjunction with the Metropolitan police—the country will have only 13,500 licensed door supervisors. That is in no way enough, and pubs and clubs would not be able to stay open, because
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they would be contravening their licences. That would obviously lead to more work for the police, and as hon. Members have said, less secure town and city centres. Many pubs and clubs would have to close because they would not be fulfilling the licensing criteria if they did not have door supervisors.

There are nationwide problems with SIA processing times. The Manchester Pub and Club Network attempted to delay the start of the licence deadline after doormen complained of extensive delays in getting passes approved and issued. Phil Burke, of the Manchester Pub and Club network, said:

Stephen Thomas, the chief executive of the security firm Luminar plc, has expressed his concern over the "SIA and its performance," and an official at the Cabinet Office's Better Regulation Task Force has admitted that the Private Security Industry Act 2001 is "bad legislation" and that the SIA's performance

There is also the problem of non-compliance. Many door supervisors have not even gone through the application process. This is a very serious problem, which the SIA needs to address immediately. It has been caused by several factors. First, inevitably there is the expense. It costs a door supervisor about £400 for a training course and £190 to apply for a licence.

Secondly, the SIA licence application criteria are very strict. Obviously, that is necessary in order to remove criminality from the industry. However, it cannot be correct that one can be refused a licence as a door supervisor because one has received a caution for a minor offence, but one can join the police service in some areas with such a criminal record. The application criteria should at least be no stricter than the process of joining the police.

Thirdly, the licence gives away the identity of a door supervisor and could make them vulnerable to revenge attacks, which greatly concerns the union. The licence, which must be worn by the door supervisor, must display his full name. That could lead many door supervisors to fear revenge attacks if they apprehend drug dealers or criminals in the establishments in which they are employed to ensure order.

Fourthly, the application process itself is also of concern. Many of those who have applied for a licence have complained that the process is very slow and that the SIA is inefficient in dealing with the application. One must call the SIA to receive an application pack; it cannot be downloaded from the website.

There have been many complaints that there is a long wait to get through on the telephone to request a pack. I asked a member of my staff to try to apply on the phone, and they were kept on hold for a very long time. When they tried again, a message advised them to try again later as the line was too busy, and they were automatically cut off. Another message advised them to call between 8 and 10 am. As you can appreciate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that would not be a good time for a door supervisor, who may have been at work until the early hours of the morning, to make such a call.
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The application form can take some time to arrive. I am advised that it can take up to two months. Once it has been completed, it is often returned with a message that there are errors on the form but without any explanation as to what those errors are.

The industry has been trying to work with the SIA to make the process simpler and easier, but with little success. The individual door supervisor must, for example, fill out the form themselves. The form is four pages long, as the Minister will know. Their employer cannot help them. Many individuals cannot fill out the application form, perhaps because English is not their first language or because they find it confusing, for the reasons elegantly explained by the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central. Businesses and training companies that have tried to help to register security staff have been told that applications must be submitted individually and in person.

Industry associations have also suggested that the door supervisory qualifications currently held by approximately 40,000 people should be recognised at least as a provisional licence when those people apply for a licence. The SIA has also rejected that suggestion. Will the Minister reconsider this issue? The SIA argues that it sends out a 30-page booklet explaining how to fill out the application form, and so it is not necessary to relax the rules or to simplify the form. The poor uptake, however, shows that reform is necessary.

The SIA states that it takes six weeks to process an application form. That is not the experience of many people. Application forms are lost in the system, and original documents are often lost. This led to one doorman having to cancel his family holiday. One doorman in Wales applied for his SIA licence in the last week of July, and did not receive it until the week before Christmas.

Fifthly, the SIA's lack of enforcement for non-compliance is also a problem. FEDS, the trade union for the private security industry, which first told me of its concerns at the beginning of the year, believes that one of the key reasons for the uptake of licences being so slow is that many doormen are not convinced that the system will be enforced. It became illegal to work as an unlicensed door supervisor in June in Hampshire, in August in the south-west, in September in Wales, and in October in the midlands. To date, only a small number of prosecutions have been brought.

Many door supervisors do not want to waste the time or expense of becoming licensed, as they do not believe that the SIA will enforce the regulations. Will the Minister comment on that specific point? The SIA's official figures show that it has 40 enforcement and compliance officers. Does the Minister think that it will be possible to regulate an industry with more than 85,000 employees with such a number?

In our submission, the SIA must employ more enforcement officers in order to carry out its work with any credibility. It says that it will work in partnership with the police and local authorities to enforce its licensing regime. For obvious reasons that the Minister will understand, the SIA must not rely on the police to enforce the licensing regulations. Police in the metropolitan areas, where most of the country's clubs and pubs are situated, are far too busy on Friday and Saturday nights dealing with the violent and alcohol-
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related crime and disorder that we now see in our town centres. The binge drinking culture means that, more than ever before, the police rely on door supervisors to keep their establishments in good order; they do not want to arrest or discipline them on behalf of the SIA.

We appear to have a Criminal Records Bureau-style mess, with all the consequent difficulties that have become so familiar under this Government. The hon. Member for Barnsley, Central—a senior and well-respected Labour Member—delivered an indictment not of the policy but of the way in which it is being implemented. Her Majesty's Opposition will clearly add that to the charge sheet of this discredited and incompetent Government as we go into the general election. However, I urge the Minister to take action this day, to stir up the SIA and to deliver the message that, even at this late hour, the Government understand the scale of the problem and will take action to deal with it.

10.42 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Caroline Flint) : We do not know, but the Prime Minister may already have called time on this Parliament; however, I am certain that our constituencies will not be calling time on Labour in government. I am sure that people across the country will see the effort that we have put in over the past eight years to making a real difference.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on securing the debate. What makes it crucial is that at its heart are the most important people—the public who use the establishments. That was clearly outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey). At one time, there was hardly any regulation of door supervisors and other door staff. I understand that only 60 per cent. of local authorities had any form of licensing scheme; and the schemes varied from one local authority area to another, particularly on training and on benchmarks on previous criminality and involvement in crime. We have moved on from a pretty dire situation.

We have also moved on for the employees involved in that sector. They are often paid cash in hand, and their rights as employees are mostly unprotected. As a former officer of the GMB, I know that that trade union has always taken a keen interest in recognising that part of our work force. Allan Black, a national officer, is responsible for that. He and the union have been working hard to get that work recognised as a professional job and to ensure that the leisure industry and others recognise that they cannot treat those people as a sort of add-on when running such establishments.

I take issue with my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central on the role of the leisure industry. It should take an interest in door supervisors, whether they are contracted from a company or taken on individually. It is crucial that the industry takes responsibility for the people front of house who supervise the entry and leaving of an establishment and maintain good order. I am sorry, but there is no excuse; the industry must take responsibility for such people in the same way that it must take responsibility for its own staff.
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Mr. Illsley : I am not sure which point in my speech my hon. Friend was referring to, but I take entirely her point that all parts of the industry must take responsibility for whatever they do. In my final comments I said that the leisure industry must ensure that it employed badged supervisors to drive out the cowboy or criminal element of unregistered door supervisors.

Caroline Flint : I welcome my hon. Friend's additional contribution, and we must make those points absolutely clear. We should consider our discussions in the wider context of licensed premises and how they are run. The hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), the spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, made points about under-age drinking and serving people who have had one too many, and the problems that that causes. We should consider the whole package of the police,   local authorities, residents and community organisations working with licensed establishments and other retailers to ensure that people can have a good night out in a safe atmosphere. It is part of the jigsaw; it is about making our enjoyment safer and more pleasurable.

It is key to ensure that people feel that organisations such as the SIA are working well. I am covering this debate for my hon. Friend the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety, but I understand that there have been some problems. The SIA has had to re-examine its systems, for example, but it is not just a question of the SIA's responsibility. In preparing for the debate, I asked some of the questions that hon. Members have asked this morning about the number of applications and why they have not come in. We must assume that some people have not applied because they are concerned that they will not be approved. Several Members have mentioned that that is not necessarily a bad thing, and it has been recognised that the process constitutes a big clearing house. That exercise is important for the public and those individuals working as door supervisors who are doing a good job, have been trained and who, whether they are working for a company contracted to an establishment or individually, want to be valued for their professionalism and integrity.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Mahmood) said, unfortunately there are some examples, illustrated by arrests, convictions and trouble caused, of individuals who should not have any responsibility for supervising establishments in our communities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) asked whether London was receiving special treatment. It is not. Recognising how huge the process is, we have introduced the system of door supervisor licensing regionally. It started with a pilot in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, and then, starting in the south-west, it moved clockwise geographically through England and Wales. The south-west began accepting licences from 1 June 2004. The introduction of the system moved from Wales to the midlands, the north-west, the north-east, the east, the south-east and London. At each stage notice was given about sending in applications and a deadline was given for each region. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr said, our discussions with the police were about what should be
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done where applications have not been processed. If people have received acknowledgment of their application—everybody should get a letter stating that their application has been received and is being processed—that will satisfy the requirement if the police are trying to decide whether to prosecute. The process allows for some proportionality and discretion, which I shall discuss later, and that is exactly the same for London. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Selby that it is not the case that we have only thought about some of those issues when they have started to affect London itself. I say that as a South Yorkshire MP.

What does worry me is the fact that people are not applying. I take on board the points that have been made about individuals who have applied, and other issues. In trying to determine whether the examples that have been given this morning are folklore, urban myths or whatever one wants to call them, it would be helpful if the names of individuals could be attached to particular cases so that we can follow them up and establish what happened. I cannot say with my hand on my heart that errors have not been made. The nature of the beast is such that mistakes are bound to happen, but we need to know whether we are dealing with serial offending—the errors are happening time and again—or one-offs due to an administrative error or whatever. I do not dismiss the anecdotes—I think of the examples that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central gave—but it would be helpful to have names against them so that we could investigate specific incidents and determine whether they were isolated cases or something more worrying. That also applies to the comments made by several other colleagues.

As everyone knows, the date when applications could first be made and when a licence would become a legal requirement in each region were published in full in July 2003. That was 11 months before the first legal requirement to be licensed—the offence date—and a full 20 months ahead of the final legal requirement date of 11 April, which we are coming up to, for London. Regardless of some of the comments that have been made in this debate, it is clear that individuals and businesses have had a considerable amount of time in which to plan, prepare, and train to meet the regulatory timetable. However, despite that, many applications have been submitted late in all the geographical regions, and the picture is no better in London.

Training has been available for all door supervisors since January 2004. As each region came online, the SIA tried to ensure that capacity was available to cope with the estimated demand. I understand the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West made about what is included in the training. The SIA did consult during development of the training specification with individual door supervisors, company trainers, awarding bodies and associations about the specification, but I shall ensure that her comments are passed on to my hon. Friend the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety to determine whether there is anything missing.

On who should be registered, the Act describes the designated activities that an individual is required to have a licence to undertake, and they are described in the "Get Licensed" booklet. I shall ensure that the points about indoor arenas and large venues are also covered.
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Training courses have been organised prior to the offence dates in most regions, but several have been cancelled due to a lack of take-up. Unfortunately, it is not until the offence date has been reached and individuals risk prosecution that the demand for training courses in any region increases. That is worrying, as it prompts the question whether some individuals and sections of the trade are operating in the spirit of what we are trying to achieve, which is a safer night out for the paying public. In each region there has been a three-month window between the date when applications could be received and the date when it became a legal requirement to hold a licence. The SIA published a target for processing 80 per cent. of licence applications within six weeks. The average since licensing began is 73 per cent. within six weeks, and 89 per cent. of all applications are processed within eight weeks. Obviously, that is not 100 per cent., but that is because some applications throw up several questions, and the SIA must be thorough in establishing what the concerns and problems are.

The SIA estimates that some 46,000 individuals will need door supervisor licences. That figure is supported by its operational experience and its police partners. As of 30 March, 50,597 individuals had requested application forms, but only 27,721 of them had returned their completed forms. That is worrying, and happened in spite of the fact that as of 30 March 45,060 individual door supervisors had spent time and money obtaining the necessary qualification.

On a more encouraging note, it is pleasing to see that in the past month applications were requested by potential door supervisors at an average rate of 500 per day. An average of 250 a day were returned, and an average of 300 newly trained door supervisors joined the qualifications database every day, having gained the necessary qualifications. However, the situation is still worrying, and we must ask why individuals do not return application forms that they have been given and why those who have received the necessary training do not move forward. I also wonder, as the daughter of publicans, why in establishments there is no discussion with door staff about why they have not returned their applications.

The SIA and its police and local authority partners have made every effort to ensure that individuals and their employers are fully aware of their responsibilities. Direct mailing, mail shots and meetings with the licensed trade have very clearly outlined the actions that individuals need to take, and the time scale within which they need to take them.

Hon. Members have posed questions about the cost of the licence. I understand that it costs £190. It can attract a subsidy of £105 from the Learning and Skills Council. The licence fee is tax deductible—that is worth just under £50—and other funding subsidies are available as well. There are several methods of assisting people with the fee, but, as hon. Members mentioned,
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companies who employ doorkeepers might want to look into that, to build a reputation for themselves as an organisation that has fully trained staff.

It is hoped that more people will continue to apply. As I have said, we need to reduce the number of errors. A high error rate has occurred in London applications, which demonstrates that some people are still not fully aware of how to fill in the application forms. Where those errors are minor, they are, where possible, solved through a telephone call, but where the error or omission is critical to the licensing criteria, the form or a duplicate has to be returned.

It is not until the SIA has a complete and acceptable application with a cleared payment, including the necessary supporting documentation, that they can start to process it. The processing of course includes a criminality check.

Mr. Illsley : I want to reinforce a point; I think that what the Minister has just referred to is among the examples that are passing into folklore. It is impossible to correct a form over the telephone with the SIA. People simply cannot get through.

Caroline Flint : I shall look into that issue and follow it up.

Mr. Grogan : I understand that the Prime Minister is on the way to the palace, so the moment of decision is nigh. Will my hon. Friend clarify whether she is urging police forces not to prosecute people who have submitted an application form and received an acknowledgment? Can she at least give us that encouragement?

Caroline Flint : No, I am not urging that. The issue is one that we must examine. We need to consider whether people show a real willingness to comply with the legislation. That is not an issue that I can deal with; it is an operational decision for police at force level. What I have tried to describe to my hon. Friend is how attempts have been made to assist people, and to give a proportionate response. I am not prepared to keep moving the barrier back. As I said at the start of the debate, we are concerned about the continued safety of the public.

A reform that has been made is that from yesterday the processing of applications can commence immediately on receipt of a correctly completed form, without waiting for the payment to clear. I understand that we are also looking into the question of bulk applications coming in from organisations. We have listened to the concerns that have been expressed and dealt with some of the issues raised.

However, although we listen and have carried out reforms, and although I shall write to hon. Members about some of the other matters that the SIA has taken into account, what we are doing is important for the protection of the public and we must stand firm.
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