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Security Companies (Accreditation)

2.30 pm

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): It is a pleasure to introduce this debate on the accreditation of security companies. I was joined in applying for it by my hon. Friends the Members for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) and for Selby (Mr. Grogan). I sincerely hope that they will contribute to what should be an interesting discussion.

We are debating matters arising out of the Private Security Industry Act 2001. In a debate earlier this year, I raised the issue of door supervisors, a category of security personnel who come within the legislation. Problems around the registration of a category of security operative, generally known as wheel clampers, have also been well documented. Unfortunately, the Act does not appear to be working too well. We are already hearing anecdotal evidence that door supervisors are circumventing the requirements of the Act by becoming bar staff and taking on a dual role, or by disappearing into the black economy, and wheel clampers are achieving registration and now doing legally what they did somewhat clandestinely in the past, but with a little stamp on the side of the van stating that they are "Government approved".

We are now dealing with the licensing of security guards, for which the deadline is March 2006. It appears that we are already running into the same problems that were highlighted previously in respect of the licensing of security company operatives. Perhaps the difference in this case is that the security guarding companies about which we are speaking are a little more serious—for want of a better word, a little more important—than those in the liquor industry.

I know that the representations made by the liquor industry were not taken too seriously by the Government, but there is probably a little more urgency and seriousness involved in this case, given that we are talking about some of the major security companies in our country. The classic example is Group 4 Securicor. Such companies transport huge quantities of cash and valuables. They guard certain establishments, including Government establishments, and, in some respects, they are involved in the private prison industry. This sector of the industry is involved in big Government contracts, so the Government cannot dismiss it in the same way that they did the liquor industry. When I say that, I do not refer to my hon. Friend the Minister, who was not responsible for this issue the last time we debated it and, in particular, when we debated it in relation to liquor licensing. However, I hope that he will take on board the seriousness of the matter.

I shall not go into the Act itself. It has been on the statute book for some years. It sets out the licensing requirements for various categories of security company: door supervisors, vehicle immobilisers, security guards, key holders, close protection operatives, cash and valuables in transit operatives, CCTV personnel and private investigators. I wish to focus on security guards in this debate. As I said, the deadline for licensing is March. If I quote a few statistics, hon. Members may get an idea of the problems that have been encountered with the licensing of other categories.
 
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Licences have been legally required for door supervisors since April this year, at the latest—there were various cut-off dates throughout 2004. Only 34,778 licences have been granted as of 9 November, against an industry estimate of 100,000 door supervisors required. That figure was contested, but even a lower industry estimate of, say, between 60,000 and 80,000, is still well above the number licensed. It is estimated that the industry will require thousands of doorkeepers, many of whom have yet to apply.

The Security Industry Authority set up by the 2001 Act is clearly having difficulties in getting the security industry to comply with the Act. The issuing of licences has been slow and to some extent over-bureaucratic. In an industry in which checks on individual personnel must be completed in a short time—perhaps a couple of weeks—licensing is now taking much longer. More and more individuals are passing the deadlines without being able to obtain their licences, so in many cases they are simply not allowed to work.

I recall that, shortly after the debate earlier this year on door supervisors, a number of police forces throughout the country clamped down over a weekend on the number of unlicensed door supervisors. Many establishments in the liquor licensing trade were closed down if door supervisors were found to be operating without licences. Therefore, there is the dynamic that the police will enforce the legislation. When the industry has a staff turnover of at least 30 per cent. per annum, it is easy to see the difficulties that we face.

The SIA now acknowledges that the licensing process takes six to 20 weeks. In April it was reluctant to admit that it faced delays, but even its website now states:

That is an acknowledgment by the SIA that licensing can take up to three months. With an estimated 50 per cent. of guards and key holders yet to be licensed, the SIA is looking at at least a 12-month delay, so it would seem impossible that the requirement for 50,000 personnel to hold licences will be met by the March deadline. Therefore, a number of law-abiding companies and blue-chip companies—if we want to call them that—that are attempting to comply with the Act will be penalised, and the industry will fall further and further into disarray.

The problems of delays have already been highlighted. A security company contacted me last week with another example of a Home Office nationality document that was refused as proof of identity. There are many examples of applications being returned because the form has been incorrectly filled in, so the whole process has to begin from the beginning. Group 4 Security told me yesterday that it has about 25 full-time staff working purely on licence applications. That company has taken on the expense and the job of dealing with licences for its staff, but not every company is likely to do that.

Where do we move from here? What is the answer? How does the industry get round these delays? It would appear that the SIA has now decided to look to an approved contractor scheme to try to alleviate its
 
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problems. Under the Act, the authority can formulate an approved contractor scheme. Indeed, the Act requires the SIA to establish a voluntary system of inspection of security services providers, under which those that satisfactorily meet the agreed standards may be registered as approved and may advertise themselves as such. That is all well and good.

The key word in that phrase is "voluntary". The system is intended to be voluntary and details of the approved contractor scheme are listed on the Home Office website under the partial regulatory impact assessment with details of the approved contractor scheme on the SIA's website. The partial regulatory impact assessment states:

The foreword to the document states:

The consultation period for those who are interested to respond with their views ends tomorrow. Despite that, the SIA has already decided on and implemented an approved contractor scheme. The SIA website refers to that scheme and the criteria involved in complying with it, how to obtain the brochure and how to make an application to be part of it.

With the closing date for the consultation being tomorrow, 17 November, one would have expected a wait before implementing the approved contractor scheme. Yet we seem to be well down the road. One would have expected the consultation period to end before considering the options. There are four options: doing nothing, a scheme with no standards set, a scheme using existing industry standards and a scheme with new standards. Today, we are discussing option 4, which is on the SIA website, and the way in which it was decided to pursue the issue by bringing in a completely new set of standards in a completely new scheme.

It seems that the industry and particularly the SIA are acting as though the scheme has already been set up. The SIA website states:

It goes on to say more about how the scheme was set up, the extensive market research, the process involving interviews with managers and so on. It gives the impression that an approved contractor scheme is already in existence, has already been consulted on, has already been put out to the industry for comment and that the major players in the industry have had their opportunity to contribute. However, one of the bodies that is responsible for standards in the security industry and perhaps the one that sets the highest standards—the National Security Inspectorate—has not been consulted or been part of the consultation by the SIA, which did not consider it a relevant organisation.

I understand that eight assessment bodies, which include the NSI, have been set up under option 4 and that some days ago staff were selected and sent for
 
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training for that approved contractor scheme. It seems that, to all intents and purposes, the consultation process ended a considerable time ago and the SIA is going for option 4 as the standard for the industry. Why has that occurred? Why was the NSI not consulted and why has the SIA, despite the fact that the consultation process is still ongoing, decided on that option? When we examine matters in detail, we see that the answer is simple.

The SIA needs an approved contractor scheme in place by March 2006 because of the delays that it is experiencing in issuing the licences. An approved contractor scheme will allow for fast-tracking so that the top 20 companies in the industry, which are probably also approved by the NSI, will be fast-tracked on to the scheme and allowed to employ unlicensed staff. Staff will be able to be deployed by the companies before their licence is supplied. Obviously, the NSI has been excluded from the consultation because its standards are too high. We will not be able to have a fast-track scheme in March 2006 that does not allow companies on to it quickly.

The NSI standards will be too high. The SIA needs a scheme in place quickly to get around the delays in the licensing process to allow companies the leeway of employing staff who have not yet been given their licence. As a result, we will have a compulsory scheme. It will no longer be voluntary because every company will need to be part of it so that it can be fast-tracked to obtain the accreditation to allow it the exemption in respect of unlicensed staff. The chances are that we shall see an approved contractor scheme with lower standards than those that already exist in the industry.

It is incredible that the consultation period has been ignored. Everything seems to be up and running before the period has ended. The SIA seems to be wedded to option 4 to the point at which it has excluded consideration of any other available option. It has ignored the NSI, the accreditation body with the highest standards and attributes of any accreditation organisation in the security industry. The consultation process has become something of a sham. Option 4 has to be the one on which the SIA embarks to minimise the problems of the delayed licences. Has my hon. Friend the Minister given approval to the SIA to go ahead with option 4? Has the Secretary of State given approval for the approved contractor scheme to be the option chosen in advance of the consultation period?

Other options are available under the regulatory impact assessment. My colleagues might refer to them in the debate. One of them is the option to do nothing. Throughout the process, it seems that the NSI has been sidelined by the SIA to the point at which the SIA has suggested that the "do nothing" option is not available to it. The SIA stated that a decision to implement option 1 would mean

That is stretching the limits of logic a little, in that the SIA is always open to challenge and/or judicial review. However, no such challenge could stand up if the Secretary of State were acting within his powers. How can someone be liable to judicial review—to challenge—for implementing an option that is contained in the Home Office consultation document? How can the
 
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Secretary of State be subject to judicial review for implementing an option that he placed as part of that consultation? It seems rather strange that the SIA has taken that attitude—unless it has done so to try to ensure that its approved contractor scheme is the one that is chosen, instead of the NSI scheme or any other.

I will now run through some of the consequences of option 4. If the industry goes along that route, the approved contractor scheme will not be voluntary. Because of the licensing delays and the need for every company to get as many people as possible operative by March 2006, every company will have to be part of that scheme; they will want to be part of it to ensure that they can enjoy the exemptions.

For companies that train their security guards, there will be a short period of training, but they will simply not be able to have security guards standing round for between four and 20 weeks doing nothing until they get a licence. That will be a cost to companies that they cannot incur, especially bearing in mind the 30 per cent. turnover of staff in the industry. Companies will need to have their operatives deployed as soon as possible, so they will need to have approved contractor status to enable them to take advantage of the exemption.

That means that from March 2006, unlicensed guards will be working throughout the security industry. That defeats the whole object of the Act. The idea was to have regulation and improving standards, but we appear to be going the other way. Rather than address the cause of the delays, we seem to be moving the goalposts in order to try to defray the effects of what is now happening.

I am reminded of the response that I received when I raised the issue of door supervisors. No assistance was forthcoming when we asked for an extension of the time available for door supervisors to be licensed. However, it now seems that the SIA is willing to bring in the approved contractor scheme and to allow unlicensed operatives to work. There appears to be a bit of hypocrisy there.

Before anybody challenges me on the unlicensed operatives, let me state that the impact assessment says that 15 per cent. of operatives can be unlicensed, provided that 85 per cent. of them are licensed. If there were a four-month licensing period in any one year, that would mean that a security company could take advantage of three tranches of 15 per cent. throughout the 12-month period; in other words, 45 per cent. of the operatives working for it could be unlicensed. If the SIA got the licensing period down to two months, there could then be up to 90 per cent. unlicensed operatives working throughout any 12-month period. Therefore, it appears that we are allowing standards to go the wrong way.

Because of the way that the approved contractor scheme allowing the exemptions is progressing, we will lower the standards in the security industry. In order to get this type of accreditation quickly, the standards will have to fall; they will have to be lower to enable companies to fast-track themselves on to the scheme. If the SIA were to consider the other options—for example, the option of doing nothing and retaining the existing standards, or of using an existing body to
 
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accredit the industry—those standards would remain at the current high level; they could, of course, also be improved.

At present, given the way that things are going, the approved contractor scheme is likely to lower standards. As there has been negotiation with parts of the industry—not all of it—over the past few months, it appears to me that the SIA has happily agreed with the industry that that is the way forward. The SIA will get round the problems of delays by allowing companies to employ unlicensed security guards from March, as a consequence of the lower standards of the approved contractor scheme.

One of the issues that has been raised with me is that extracts of speeches have appeared on the SIA website relating to improving companies' profitability, although I understand that they have now been removed. As far as I am aware, there is no mention in the 2001 Act of any requirement on the SIA to promote profitability or to improve the functioning of the companies, other than to regulate them and to license them. One must question in exactly what direction the SIA is travelling in relation to this approved contractor scheme.

It is also worth pointing out that many companies have spent a hell of a lot of money on accreditation, in particular the accreditation with the NSI. Many companies have spent a lot of money getting their employees licences; Group 4 Securicor representatives told me yesterday that it is paying for all its operatives and it is questioning who will pick up the cost. It looks like the customers will pick up any costs arising from the problems in the licensing regime.

It is clear that the 2001 Act has caused huge implementation problems for every sector. It was designed to reassure the public and to improve standards in the security industry, but it is failing yet again. An approved contractor scheme is being forced on the industry unnecessarily, in an attempt to get around the delays in licensing.

I make a plea to the Minister to re-examine these issues, in particular the attitude and the actions of the SIA, because we are in danger of seeing the industry introduce a scheme that will enable it to avoid criticism over its delays and incompetence in the licensing regime, and allow unlicensed operatives to work from 2006. As far as I am concerned, that is defeating the spirit and intention of the 2001 Act.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mrs. Janet Dean (in the Chair): Order. May I inform Members that I intend to call Front-Bench spokespeople at 3.30 pm and that four Back-Bench Members wish to speak?

2.58 pm

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South) (Lab): My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) should have started his speech the other way round, because it was a quite naked presentation on behalf of one organisation within the security industry, which feels that its near monopoly—70 per cent. of the market—is being taken away.
 
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I have a long interest in security. I campaigned for 25    years, unsuccessfully, to get away from self-regulation. It was a pathetic industry that had enormous turnover—100 per cent. a year and sometimes more—of personnel, appallingly low standards and very low profits. Profits are important for companies—to get the investment and pay the salaries. It was an industry with hardly any training. Most of the guarding companies provided no training whatever. Even the better companies, which belonged to the British Security Industry Association, provided two days' training—usually pathetic—and one day's on-the-job training.

I worked very hard to try to persuade the previous Government to introduce licensing. They rejected it. When this Government came to office, they introduced legislation—and the 2001 Act is on the statute book. The Security Industry Authority has, I think, now been in operation for 18 months. It could have decided to rattle through in six months the licensing in an industry that involves about 400,000 people. It decided to be patient. Let us remember what the passport office did when it tried to move too quickly. There was chaos. The SIA is moving slowly but carefully.

Of course, there are problems and people are whingeing. Perhaps the people who take a long time to have their forms returned and validated have not filled them in properly. What percentage of forms sent in by people seeking a licence had that form dealt with? The answer is that 30 per cent. of all forms submitted are returned to the person signing them to ask for the information that was requested. Am I pleased with the scheme—which my hon. Friend is apparently pleased to see return—where nothing is to be done, with a self-regulatory body in charge of the inspectorate? No. The party that we represent fought for a long time to change it, and to return to it would be going backwards at a rapid pace.

The industry is in the process of being regulated. I can answer my hon. Friend's question as to why it is concerned about profit. Every Bill I have introduced—all five of them—has said that the regulatory authority should not just be a gatekeeper, admitting people or rejecting them. The industry is fragmented and its members are constantly at war with each other, which is not satisfactory. Having a neutral organisation—the SIA—trying to bring a degree of coherence is wholly desirable.

I hold a number of honorary positions in the security industry, none of which are paid, but I declare them. I hold a position in the Joint Security Industry Council, for which I am not getting paid; that is representative. Even the dog handlers have me as a patron. I do not want any jokes about being barking mad, because I have used them already.

I have a good feel for the security industry. I have written two books and 172 articles and have spoken in hundreds of meetings, trying to set up an organisation that eventually became the Security Industry Authority. One of the happiest days of my life was when the Private Security Industry Act 2001 came about. Was it perfect? Like hell it was, but it was rushed through before the election and was the only legislation that was feasible. I was told, "It's either this or nothing at all." The Act is so bad it is almost good, in that it allows the SIA to regulate
 
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through subordinate legislation. Is this global industry—growing to $120 billion in the world—doing its job? It certainly is here.

I believe that the industry is improving enormously. We are getting away from many of the faults, which have now been eradicated. Is the SIA perfect? No, it is not. The people who opposed regulation in the first place are still whingeing. They did not like it then and they will take any opportunity to criticise the SIA if it acts against their interests. The SIA has done reasonably well. So far, it has had a catalytic effect on the private security industry. I shall mention my criticism in a moment, but it has done a good job.

Some ask why the regulatory authority exists when there is self-regulated delivery. Whose self-regulation today is delivering? Did it ever deliver? It certainly is not delivering now. I do not want to go back to that period of statutory self-regulation.

I am told that the model for training and accreditation has already been decided. It is up to the Minister to tell us whether he has made a decision already. I doubt whether he has. Many organisations—a vast number—offer training. I was told that there are not enough trainers, but there are 6,500 of them, and 2,000 training providers. That is no shortage.

I am told, "It is too difficult to license people." However, 140,000 people, some 60,000 of whom are private security guards, have been licensed and trained already. Yes, there were problems with door supervisors, but that was in a trial run  in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight and, as I said earlier, a lot of people did not complete the forms correctly. Lessons have been learned from that.

The idea that the approved contractors scheme will somehow result in a lower standard is a fantasy. My hon. Friend makes the following argument: "All right, let the person's friends run their section of the security industry. Let's have a regulatory scheme with no standards at all." No, I do not want that; I want a proper, approved contractor scheme. If anyone reads the brochure that has been put out, it will tell them exactly what is intended. There is an attempt to raise management standards. The licensing is for the personnel. The approved contractor scheme will try to raise the quality, the process and the commercial relationships, to improve the management, the financial management, the quality of people and the quality of leadership and to develop corporate responsibility. If that is going backwards, my sense of direction is completely unacceptable and intolerable.

The scheme will be good. My criticism is that management training will not be compulsory; it should be. If the guy in the infantry has to go through a training programme—and four days is not enough—why should management in myriad organisations not be obliged to get a degree or qualification?

The approved contractor scheme will supplement licensing. It is very good, and the idea of reneging on a commitment to introduce it is totally erroneous. My impression is that a number of companies will now bid to be, in essence, the approver of the various schemes across a wide range of activities. I believe in competition; it is better to have one organisation losing its ability to control perhaps 70 per cent. of the market and to allow in others who will operate to a scheme laid
 
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down by the SIA. At the moment, the NSI is market leader, with 70 per cent. of the business, I am told. If the Minister approves the scheme, others will be competing. I would have thought and hoped that most people would be prepared to see a system under which others enter the market.

The industry is becoming more professional. Thousands of men and women now have qualifications when previously they had none. I had estimated that there were 100,000 door supervisors, but the figure was much lower, and I shall say why: because thousands of door supervisors knew full well that they would never pass a criminal records check, so they disappeared from the scene. My hon. Friend said that he had anecdotal evidence; if he is able to provide more than that and say which bars or restaurants employ unlicensed door supervisors, he should please pass the details on to the local police, who have the responsibility for prosecuting.

I move on to my last point. The industry is accused of taking too long to license; I think that 80 per cent. of all licence applications are dealt with in six weeks. [Interruption.] I listened patiently to my hon. Friend; perhaps he will listen to me for a few more seconds. I wish that the period was shorter than six weeks, but we are not talking about 18, 20 or 30 weeks. If we are, it will perhaps be because the relevant guy lives in Botswana, and it will take some time to find out whether there is a regulatory authority in that country to get the information back over. That is the reason.

Of course, the approved contractor scheme's fast-tracking is going to be criticised. However, my hon. Friend says that the process takes too long. Under the new scheme, if the approved contractor is seen as honest, ethical and meeting all the standards, somebody who applies—no contractor should employ a security guard if it has not gone through its own system of vetting—and gets past the system will be allowed to enter work, and the licence will follow. So the contractor decides whether it wants the employee quickly or at all.

I hope that the Minister will answer some of the questions. I have my criticisms of the SIA but, on balance, it is doing a good job. It is being undermined by people who are trying to do it in for their own commercial reasons. I really hope that the Minister will say that, in the 18 to 20 months that it has been functioning, the SIA has done pretty well. When mistakes have been made, they can be remedied, but any idea of loosening its control or of taking away its right to enable a number of companies to operate in the role of supervisor, and of leaving the current arrangements in place would not be adequate. Those with many interests in private security would wonder whether that was the right decision.

I ask the Minister to give the SIA support. It deserves it. In two or three years, the industry will become unrecognisable from the pathetic industry that it was prior to the legislation, and that will be due to the SIA.

3.11 pm

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I thank the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) for raising the matter and for his persistence. As a new Member of the House, I find that life here is very much an
 
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education, and his depth of knowledge and that of the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) is certainly something with which I cannot compete.

I shall focus briefly on my brief experience of door supervisors in my constituency. I might be charged with being a whinger but, as the right hon. Member for Walsall, South said, worries have been expressed about the working of the system as it is constituted, and that needs to be dealt with by the Minister in his discussions with the SIA. There are widespread concerns about the working of the SIA, in particular its interface and record in dealing with those who seek accreditation.

A month ago, I accompanied my local police force in Aberystwyth on night patrol. As we visited the pubs and clubs in the town, it quickly became apparent that the system does not always work as effectively as it should. There is the worry that a body that is funded publicly to the tune of £25 million and which charges up to £590 for administration per application is not coping with the situation.

I wish to cite a brief example provided by a constituent. Mr. Aled Davies of Aberystwyth assures me that his worries are widespread. His business has a capacity that requires a maximum of nine door supervisors, an extensive pool of people all of whom require training and accreditation. Above all else, he needs a prompt and efficient system that deals with applications within six weeks at least. Sadly, he told me of delays of six months. Few of us would deny that the current system is better than what existed before, as the right hon. Member for Walsall, South said, but individual failings need to be addressed. My constituent reported some delays of more than a year. However, I accept the right hon. Gentleman's point about the huge number of forms that are inaccurately completed and the time that it takes to remedy the mistakes.

Aberystwyth is a university town. The income of many students is supplemented by such work, but by the time that many of the applications are processed, they have already left town. Mr. Davies also cited examples of lost application forms and the failure to reach relevant officials by telephone. He is a responsible business man who wishes to comply with the spirit and detail of the law, but he has been in the responsible position of turning away business because he lacked sufficient accredited employees as a result of the system not working.

I do not wish to enter the debate on whether the figure is 90,000 or 120,000, but there is a huge backlog of applications and that needs to be dealt with at the first opportunity. Earlier this year, there was a truce between the police and the SIA in that there were to be no prosecutions in certain areas, such as Ceredigion and London, as long as the bouncers could prove that they had applied for a licence. That short-term approach makes a mockery of the system. It would be helpful if the Minister clarified the extent of the application backlog. We have heard conflicting figures. Can he explain what procedures are in place to measure the performance of the SIA? It is clear from the widespread support that the 2001 Act had at the time that the SIA is a laudable organisation in its intent, but serious matters need to be addressed.
 
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3.15 pm

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): It is a pleasure to take part in this debate, which has been a little more spirited and lively than I expected when I sat down this afternoon. I congratulate the three hon. Members who have taken part so far, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on securing it. I shall try to carry on the Yorkshire flavour that he brought to the debate. My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) spoke with a great deal of authority and experience, and I learned quite a few things. I did not know about his connection with a dog-handling authority. I shall go away and contemplate that. Equally, the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) brought a great deal of local experience to the debate. That is what I want to follow.

I speak as chair of the all-party parliamentary beer group. It is a tough job, but someone has to do it. We held a seminar on this subject in the dying days of the previous Parliament. I do not have the vast experience of some of my colleagues in this matter, and that was my first association with the issue. Over the months, I have kept in touch with the pub and club industry about the implementation of the 2001 Act.

I start from the standpoint that this industry needed regulating. The 2001 Act was a substantial advance, and clearly many hon. Members more experienced than me have devoted a great deal of time to it. However, it is right to consider how the Act is working in practice. The approved contractor scheme cannot come a day too soon for many pubs and clubs. There are three reasons why we now need to increase the number of door supervisors who can legally work in pubs and clubs.

First, we are coming up to Christmas. Even though we will probably not need door supervisors at the all-party beer group's Christmas party, parties up and down the land will need them, and the demand for door supervisors will be high. Secondly, next week, following yesterday's vote in the House, the Licensing Act 2003 will come into force. That will increase the time that pubs and clubs are open, so there will be an increased demand for door supervisors. Thirdly, the industry wants to co-operate with the Government's alcohol misuse enforcement campaign and, again, door supervisors are an important part of that.

It is a matter of some concern that, in recent months, the number of people who have applied for door supervisor's accreditation has slowed up considerably since accreditation became mandatory. Many people applied in the run-up to the cut-off date, but the number has now slowed to a trickle. For many of those who were door supervisors, the economics of having to find £450 for the application and the accreditation, when they will not work for six weeks or whatever it may be, may mean that they have to look for alternative work and do not go into the industry.

The approved contractor scheme is therefore vital in increasing the supply of door supervisors to the industry in this critical phase. Clearly some people are arguing for option 4 and completely new standards. In terms of option 3, some British standards—BS7960 is one—are widely respected in the industry. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South that a monopoly is not desirable in these circumstances—there
 
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should be a number of competing providers—but we do not necessarily need to reinvent the wheel. I therefore urge my hon. Friend the Minister to scrutinise the options carefully.

There is even a possibility that, at some stage following the Hampton review, the SIA will be merged with the Health and Safety Executive. Where to go from here is a finely balanced judgment. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to look carefully at some of the existing standards and to consider whether he can build on them instead of scrapping them and going for option 4. We need the approved contractor scheme in place quickly, to ensure not least that the pub and club industry is completely in compliance, but that it has a supply of door supervisors to allow it to comply but still provide a service for the nation.

3.20 pm

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): I wish to make just a few points, and will try not to repeat what has already been said by other hon. Members. I largely support what my hon. Friends the Members for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) and for Selby (Mr. Grogan) said.

I wish to reiterate why many of us worked for and supported the legislation that set up the SIA and that introduced regulation for all parts of the security and leisure industry. My particular interest since I was first elected in 1997 has been the issue of door supervisors. I am particularly interested in it because it is a matter of public safety, in particular the safety of young people, as they tend to make up the majority who frequent pubs, clubs and large-scale pop industry events. In common with many hon. Members, I had heard all sorts of horror stories from constituents—or, more often, from constituents' parents—who had fallen foul of door supervisors who were either overtly criminal and violent, or who involved themselves in the drug trade and simply used their door supervising role to sell drugs. In the context of pop concerts, which have an extremely young clientele, there was the added problem of supervisors who were suspected of sexual offences. They used their position at concerts to put young people at considerable risk. Therefore, I am absolutely behind the SIA and the legislation as vital methods of protecting public safety.

I have some concerns, however, about how the SIA is operating. First, I do not think it good practice to consult on something but put a decision into effect before the consultation has ended. It makes a mockery of consultation, and that has a much wider impact than the issue that we are discussing. People will say, "It just proves that the Government consult only when they have already made up their minds." People run everything into "the Government". It is extremely bad practice to consult and then to anticipate the result of the consultation.

Secondly, I am concerned that the approved contractor scheme is giving firms a licence, in essence, to subvert the will of Parliament. That is a hard thing to say, but I believe that is what it is. In passing the legislation, Parliament wanted there to be no unlicensed door supervisors, wheel clampers and so on. Not 85 per cent. but 100 per cent. were to be licensed. Whatever the safeguards involved in including in the approved
 
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contractor scheme only companies that have signed up to it and that have passed certain standards, the scheme allows companies to operate legally with unlicensed operators. I do not believe that that is acceptable, and I do not understand why it is allowed. It seems to be completely against the spirit of what Parliament intended and is subverting the democratic and parliamentary will. One can argue about what 15 per cent. means, but, because of the fast turnover in the industry, 15 per cent. can mean a lot more than 15 per cent. over time.

The third issue is the nature of the standards in the approved contractor scheme. There is merit in a graduated scheme—that is, a threshold and then grades above that clearly require a higher standard of some firms than of others. Presumably, such grades would give firms a competitive advantage over firms that have achieved the legal standard, but not the two-star or one-star standards above it. I am concerned that the approved contractors scheme far from maintains and improves standards in the delivery of security services, as was said in the written answer received from the Minister yesterday, on 15 November.

Imposing a single threshold, which is lower than many of the standards already operating in the industry, although requiring every company to reach a minimum standard, will not give any encouragement whatever to firms to do any better than that minimum standard. That will lead not to an improvement in overall standards, but merely to a raising of the standards of the poorest firms.

3.25 pm

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): The debate has been tremendously interesting, particularly for someone like me, who does not have huge experience of the security industry. However, I have huge experience of what my constituents face locally. We welcomed the Private Security Industry Act 2001 as a way of regulating an industry—whether door supervisors, wheel clampers, for which I have forgotten the technical term, and now the security industry itself—that was upsetting a great number of people.

Clearly, with the relaxation of the licensing laws, there is going to be a greater need for door supervisors. I have listened to the debate, and I would stand up for the public. Trust has been put in the Government to ensure that an industry that had a tremendously bad reputation, and was dangerous, would come under regulation. I am less than happy to hear that there is a way of circumventing the rules put in place for the public's protection.

I liken the situation to what happened when I was a member of the London assembly, where I was chair of transport and the Mayor of London licensed unregulated minicabs. The attempt to regulate is not dissimilar. There is an owner, an individual or driver and—for the taxi trade—the vehicle itself. Frankly, any circumvention or shortening of a process that will deliver safety to the public should not be encouraged.

On wheel clampers, I have terrible examples of their effect on the public. One of my constituents was clamped and, as is not unusual, was extremely upset. However, the vehicle immobiliser—that is the term—called her a great number of names. She rang me in tears. I cannot
 
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attribute what happened next directly to the clamper, but the police were involved and, three weeks later, she killed herself. That is a tremendously tragic case. An industry that was so cavalier is required to have much higher standards, and what the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) said about door supervisors applies to the security trade. Standards must be raised to avoid such tragic events—that case was clearly at one end of the scale. I would be extremely disheartened if an approved contractors scheme allowed the industry to circumvent the intention of the original legislation.

The SIA has a tremendous problems and is clearly not coping with the load, although I do not have the information as to whether that is because it is badly run or inappropriately resourced. Private security companies have now become an important part of the industry, so the licensing scheme is important and the public need confidence in the industry. If the licensing process falls into disrepute, we are back where we started and no gain has been made.

What is happening with the licensing of doorkeepers is not comforting. We are only part of the way through the process and are having to delay or make agreements with the police, such that, so long as one has applied, one is let off being prosecuted, because the licence is on the way: "I've applied for my licence, officer." The SIA set out to license about 85,000 door supervisors, but only 40,000 have been put through.

In the end, some criticism has to be levelled at the Government for not analysing what would be necessary or the time scales that would be involved to maintain the standards that the public are relying on, coming out of the legislation. I hope that the Minister will give us an assurance that resourcing will be increased to enable more licensing and that no standards will be dropped during the licensing so that the public can be reassured that the legislation enacted will serve them as they expect.

Mr. Bruce George : Of course there are people who have had problems, but will the hon. Lady accept that the process has not been discredited? When it comes to guards, the process of licensing is a long way from being concluded, and a lot of people have been licensed already. I feel that people have been got at by the use of wrong information. The system is working reasonably well and I hope that when she explores the matter further she will realise that the system has not been discredited and that standards are not falling. I speak as someone who has spent 25 years observing the process.

Lynne Featherstone : I very much hope that the system has not been totally discredited but there is a concern that it will be if it is circumvented. In such circumstances, an approved scheme operator could employ effectively unlicensed employees to carry out the same job that they would have done if they had made a direct application.

Mr. George : All I would say is that the system has not been circumvented. Standards are continually being raised and attacking them with little more than
 
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anecdotal evidence or sad stories will give the impression that the system is falling apart when it really is not.

Lynne Featherstone : I do not really have any more to add.

3.32 pm

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): Thank you, Mrs. Dean. It is a pleasure to be serving under your guidance. I apologise for my poor telephone discipline earlier, and may I say what a pleasure it is to be opposite the Minister again?

This has been an extremely interesting debate. I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) for securing it and allowing us all to air views that will be helpful to the industry, whether we agree with what is going on at the moment or not.

My own exposure to the matter came initially while serving under the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) on the Defence Committee some four years ago when that Committee for reasons best known to posterity—and the right hon. Gentleman himself—was chosen to carry out the investigation of 11 September 2001 and, for want of a better phrase, the homeland security measures that the Government might choose to put in place to defend the nation in the event of such an incident happening again.

I had always regarded the community of people in question as those who look after pubs, clubs and other establishments and still see them as such in my community. I began to realise that these ladies and gentlemen could have a much more serious, far-reaching effect, were they to be properly regulated and brought into the wider police family. It is a move that I could wax eloquent about, but I will not for the simple reason that much more needs to be done about the matter.

Although I, as a Tory, feel strongly that government should be small rather than large and believe in all the principles of competition, I understand that the industry needs some regulation. I hope that the Minister will be able to explain whether that regulation is working correctly.

I thought that the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) gave some very interesting insights into her personal experience, which, with respect, she said is not deep; I suspect it is more visceral. It shed a light on the situation of those who are on the receiving end and it is an interesting juxtaposition to the experience of the right hon. Member for Walsall, South, who is clearly deeply knowledgeable on the subject.

Similarly, the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) made some extremely good points—without wishing to sound patronising—particularly about doorkeepers who, without regulation in the past, had given the police not assistance but serious problems. The views on the industry of the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) blew the froth off the whole subject; he took more or less the same view as the hon. Members for Milton Keynes, South-West and for Barnsley, Central.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) talked convincingly about the need for prompt accreditation. That subject will come up throughout this
 
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summary—and I am sure that it will also come up in the Minister's reply. Questions will arise as to how long accreditation should take and how efficient the 2001 Act is, regardless of what we might think about the rights and wrongs of this subject in general.

The star turn of this debate has been the right hon. Member for Walsall, South versus the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central. I have no doubt that they are the best of friends, but they clearly disagree strongly about this subject. A debate has been had about monopoly on the one side versus over-regulation or lack of regulation on the other. I hope that the Minister will be able to provide some insight into that.

Mr. Illsley : There is probably less difference between me and my right hon. Friend than has been suggested. I agree that there should be regulation, but it should be done properly, and we should not exclude any company that has a good track record in respect of accreditation systems.

3.36 pm

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

4.3 pm

On resuming—

Patrick Mercer : I am now utterly confused about how much time we have left so I will romp through the rest of my speech and allow the Minister time to answer the various questions.

The hon. Member for Barnsley, Central was just saying that the distance between himself and the right hon. Member for Walsall, South is not that great. I have no doubt that, both physically and emotionally, the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Gentleman are close to one another. However, anyone who knows the right hon. Member for Walsall, South knows that he always speaks passionately and makes his case with great perspicacity. No doubt because of his association with the guard dog association, his bark is worse than his bite on many occasions.

I will ask the Minister some specific questions, so that I can spare everyone else the ghastly puns. Schedule 1 of the 2001 Act requires the authority to consist of members appointed by the Secretary of State. Will the Minister say who those members are and publish a list? Will he say whether they include among their number anybody who is, or has been, working in the private security industry? Similarly, the same schedule allows the authority to establish committees and sub-committees. It was understood that the authority intended to set up steering committees for each licensing category, using professionals in that sector to advise on best practice for licensing. Will he say who is on the committees and sub-committees and publish their names? Along similar lines, it has been suggested that the SIA policy on employment is not to employ anyone from the private security industry. Will he say whether that is correct?

To go a little further than the hon. Member for Selby, it seems that a significant number of British standards—for example, BS7499 for guarding and BS7858 for screening—already cover the private security industry.
 
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Those are used to identify competence, good practice and other aspects of the SIA's requirement for licensing and the approved contractor scheme. As that is the case, would it not have saved the SIA considerable time to have adopted the experienced British Standards Institution committees to support its role rather than trying to reinvent the wheel?

Will the Minister confirm that the SIA will not assign or contract out any of its rights or duties to an organisation that operates or invokes its own proprietary scheme? Further to that, as a probing question, where is the evidence that it is necessary to legitimise the areas that the SIA now plans to go in to and regulate? Does the Minister agree that although the SIA was established to regulate those parts of the security industry that needed regulation—wheel clampers, door supervisors, security guards and so on—by regulating private investigators and security consultants it will go into areas where there is a lack of any evidence to suggest that they need regulating? If the Minister agrees, will he expand on that point?

Does not the way in which the SIA now operates suggest that it has forgotten the approach to regulation supported by the Better Regulation Task Force? Is it not now creating unnecessary hurdles and obstacles, particularly for small security companies? Perhaps that is against the whole idea we are trying to achieve with the regulation that we agree is necessary. However, it must not hamper small firms.

The SIA has been promoting its approved contractor scheme for more than a year. The scheme is still under consultation. Many small and medium-sized security companies have decided that they wish to be assessed against existing British standards and the quality standard ISO 9001. That is option 3 under the approved contractor scheme consultation, as we have heard from several hon. Members this afternoon, and accords with the UK Accreditation Service benchmarks established by the National Security Inspectorate. However, the SIA has made its preference known for option 4. I will not go any further, but I am sure that the Minister will have a view on this important subject. I wonder also about the SIA having unilaterally abolished the only external strategic oversight body, the stakeholders' advisory group, two years ago and not replacing it. What plans do the Government have to oversee the SIA in the future?

A small but important point is whether SIA statistics are up to date. Is it giving out statistics that might make it seem more favourable than the facts in case? Lastly, were the senior executive members of the new sector skills council appointed through the normal process for the appointment of people to public bodies? If they were not, does the Minister not think that, given the importance of such posts, they should be?

I am grateful for the opportunity to summarise and take the points that we have heard today. The debate has been extremely useful, particularly the differing views expressed by the right hon. Member for Walsall, South and the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central. I will be extremely interested to hear the Minister's reply.

Mrs. Janet Dean (in the Chair): For the Minister's information, the debate will finish at 4.27 unless we are interrupted again.
 
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4.9 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins) : Thank you, Mrs. Dean.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on securing the debate. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) that it has proved to be more lively than any of us anticipated, and rightly so. It is an important issue and there is a lot of experience in the Chamber today. We have been provided with an opportunity to review the performance of the Security Industry Authority and to update the House on the consultation that is ongoing, until tomorrow, on the proposals for an approved contractor scheme.

The context for our discussions is the Private Security Industry Act 2001. My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) has long experience of such matters, as do my hon. Friends the Members for Barnsley, Central, for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) and for Selby. I am a relative newcomer to such issues, as is the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams), and we are learning all the time. It is good that Members have been able to contribute their experience to this important issue.

As private security has increasingly come into contact with the public and as the volume of the private security industry has increased, we have had to ensure that criminal elements are not part of it and that decent standards are maintained. I freely admit to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central that that has entailed some additional costs for the industry, but they are costs that will give added value to those companies and make them more competitive and, we hope, provide a better service. I say to him in all seriousness that if he has evidence of or anecdotes about the flouting of any of the regulations, he should bring them forward and we would have them examined urgently and in great detail.

It is important that the laws, rules and regulations are properly enforced. I regard that as an important responsibility for me, coming into this role, as is improving standards in a way that is not over-burdensome to the industry, but that engenders greater public confidence. Both those things are important. Given that the SIA has been open for business only since March 2004, a great deal has been achieved in a sector that was almost wholly unregulated in many respects.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central expressed concern about the rate of applications and licensing decisions. He asked for progress. Just last week the SIA announced that it had issued its 50,000th licence. Given that it started its business in March 2004, that is quite an achievement. I have been watching the performance of the SIA carefully over recent months and I am pleased to say that it has improved. More than 85 per cent. of licence applications are now processed within the target of six weeks, and there is currently no backlog. It is dealing with about 7,000 cases, few of which exceed the six-week period. I acknowledge that there have been difficulties, but I am pleased to say that progress has been made and that performance is improving.

Thanks to various improvements that have been made to the application process by the SIA, the number of incomplete applications received is beginning to
 
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decline. That was a point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South. The SIA has improved the advice, the booklets and the information available.

Incredibly perhaps, to many hon. Members, the failure rate of applications initially was some 50 per cent.—one in every two applications was incomplete. That number has now been reduced to some 36 per cent., which, again, hon. Members might regard as high, but I put it to them that the Passport Agency, which is working far better these days, has a failure rate of applications of 33 per cent. Clearly, there is much that all public agencies can do to ensure that more information is available and that people process applications as accurately as possible. There have been improvements and that should be recognised.

The number of door supervisors licensed over the past year and a half is 34,000 of a total of 40,000. Obviously, some are therefore not licensed. They will increasingly come under the scrutiny of local authorities and the police, who will seek to find out who those people are and where they are. There are prosecutions and there will be prosecutions. It is quite timely perhaps that under the Licensing Act 2003, which comes into operation next week, it can be made a condition of the licence that door supervisors operate on the premises concerned, and they will need to be properly accredited by the SIA.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central is quite right to say that the security guarding sector, which employs more than 120,000 people, is by far the largest of all the six sectors that are required to be licensed under the 2003 Act. Given such large numbers, it is vital that the licensing of security guards is carried out in a phased manner, to ensure that no complications with the processing of applications are caused by any late surge just before the legal requirement date of 20   March 2006. The SIA was obviously in discussion with the industry and reached agreement with it that applications would be spread as evenly as possible over a 14-month period, targeting about 8,000 applications a month. That number could easily be managed within the SIA's own procedures and within the resources of the Criminal Records Bureau. The Home Office and the SIA are dependent on the industry's co-operation for a successful and effective roll-out of licensing for the security guarding sector.

The good news is that a growing number of companies are meeting and, indeed, exceeding the targets for licence applications that they agreed with the SIA. I am very encouraged by that, and it means that future pressures on the licensing system are being reduced. I appreciate the efforts of those companies meeting their targets, and I am impressed by their dedication and commitment.

Unfortunately, however, other companies are not yet meeting their targets for submitting licence applications, and that has the potential to lead to a shortfall in the applications received. It means that the processing capabilities of the SIA and the Criminal Records Bureau may be being under-utilised. We run a great risk of processing insufficient numbers of licence applications and, therefore, restricting the number of operatives who will be licensed from 20 March next year.

I am about to send a letter to all private companies in the sector urging them, particularly those that have not yet done so, to encourage their staff to submit their
 
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applications as soon as possible or to utilise the SIA's bulk applications process. The SIA is working with the Home Office to develop plans to deal with a late surge in the number of applications, if one occurs. However, it will be difficult for the SIA's systems to handle a last-minute flood of applications in the last couple of months before the March 2006 deadline. It is therefore vital that as many applications as possible are received by the SIA before the end of this month.

My officials and I have been working closely with the SIA to ensure that the process is as smooth as possible, and that the message goes out loud and clear that people need to get their applications in now—or certainly in the next few weeks—and not leave it until February and March of next year. I make it absolutely clear that there is no intention to change the date from 20 March next year. From that date, it will be a criminal offence for any security guard, supplied on a contract for services, to work without a licence. It will also be a criminal offence for directors and managers of guarding companies to supply unlicensed operatives.

The SIA licensing scheme is a valuable system of regulation that protects the public, and it is improving standards throughout the industry. It is important that the industry continues to work closely with the SIA to implement an effective regulatory system that meets those aims.

All hon. Members who have contributed to the debate spoke about the approved contractor scheme consultation taking place. The partial regulatory impact assessment is out for consultation. Hon. Members know that it was published on 25 August, and the consultation period ends tomorrow. There have been 1,000 requests for copies of the consultation document, and already 100 submissions have been made. We expect that others will arrive before the deadline tomorrow.

The powers to create an approved contractor scheme were contained in the original legislation—in sections 15 to 18 of the Act. There are four options in relation to the consultation, and I shall come on to them. I want to emphasise an important point: the approved contractor scheme is not a carte blanche for companies to take on indefinitely people who are not suitably qualified and accredited. The scheme allows an approved company to employ staff while their application for a licence is being processed. However, those staff must have completed the training and submitted an application. If the application were subsequently turned down by the SIA, they would no longer be able to operate in the industry. In other words, in an industry in which there is rapid change and where credible companies are undertaking suitable training, those companies are able to employ those staff for the first few weeks, but if the staff do not come up to scratch they will lose their job.

Dr. Starkey : Will the Minister clarify whether the individuals would be working without having undergone a criminal records check?

Paul Goggins : Yes, but because the process of application obviously includes a Criminal Records Bureau check, we need to ensure that the companies employing the staff would maintain credible quality in training and other matters. We are placing trust in that credibility. The arrangement would enable them to employ staff, provided that they had done the training in the first few weeks.
 
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The scheme is out to consultation. Four options have been mentioned: option 1 is to do nothing; option 2 is a self-regulatory approach; option 3 is a scheme using existing industry standards; and option 4 is a scheme with new standards. Hon. Members have several times asked whether a decision has been made. I assure them that no decision has yet been made about which of the options will be followed. How do I know? I am the Minister who will make the decision, and I have not done so; nor would it be proper for me to do so while the matter is still the subject of consultation.

It is true that the SIA has had a meeting with eight potential assessing bodies collectively to establish the workability of option 4. However, those are the same assessing bodies that would be likely to be involved in implementing option 3. It is necessary for the SIA to be prepared to implement any of the options that I may decide on. Preparations by the SIA are not a problem. Of course, we would want any option to be implemented as quickly as possible but no decision has been made, and the decision is ministerial, not one for the SIA.

The SIA has a duty, under the 2001 Act, to establish and maintain an approved contractor scheme. The scheme will also help the SIA to carry out its functions under the Act, including maintaining and improving standards in the provision of security services. An important objective of the approved contractor schemes is to enable security firms to operate more efficiently, by providing a mechanism for them to deploy staff who have already done the appropriate training and applied for a licence, but not yet received it. Without that mechanism, firms cannot deploy staff until they have physically received their licence, which will typically take six weeks from the receipt of the completed application.

To reduce risk to an acceptable level, the ACS will need to ensure that only those firms that meet certain requirements will be allowed to deploy staff without a licence. Of course, the standard that they will have to reach—the option that Ministers will decide should be followed—has not yet been settled on.

In drawing up the consultation, we have been keen to involve the Better Regulation Executive and the Better Regulation Task Force. We want always to create a balance between self-regulation and regulation that is promoted and asserted by Government. It is important to do so, and to take advice and guidance from the various bodies. The consultation draws to an end tomorrow, as hon. Members have pointed out, and before I make a final decision I shall give urgent consideration to the representations that have been made.

The hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) asked me some detailed questions about the SIA and I undertake to write to him with all the information that I can give him. I shall send copies to other hon. Members who contributed to the debate. He mentioned the extended police family, and we are keen to support that. The private industry—like all citizens—plays a part in that; we all have a responsibility to make sure that our communities are safe.

I have mentioned the balance that is needed between self-regulation and self-responsibility, and regulation imposed from above and properly monitored. I believe that we are striking the correct balance with the SIA and the various systems that are in place.
 
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I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central on having introduced the debate. It has given us an opportunity to review the current position. The progress that we have been able to make since the legislation came into force should encourage us all. There have been difficulties, but they will be overcome and as a result we should all have greater confidence in the private security industry.


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