Is the rise of the SNP the thin end of the wedge?

I’m Peter Webster, chief executive of Corps Security, and this is where I examine the issues affecting the security industry. My thoughts and opinions are intended to generate debate and whether you agree or disagree with them, you’re welcome to post your comments below.Image

As far as general elections go, this one had more than its fair share of drama and one month on, and with the Queen’s Speech delivered, we are finally starting to get an idea of the direction of UK policy.

In many respects the result was a tale of two nations. While most of us expected a hung parliament of one kind or another, when the BBC’s exit poll stated that the Conservatives would win an outright majority, it was hard to believe. Let’s just say that very few people, thought Paddy Ashdown would actually have to eat his hat! – although I suspected that there may be a surprise outright win for the Conservatives as, against expectations, the UKIP vote seemed to be coming from the supporters of other parties.

While the success of the Tories was down to English voters, north of the border a seismic shift was created with the Scottish National Party (SNP) winning 56 of the country’s 59 seats. Although this result was greeted with a certain amount of incredulity by most commentators, I was less surprised, given the result of the Scottish independence referendum where 44.7% of the voters supported the Nationalist message. What transpired was that the SNP achieved 50% of the vote in Scotland in the General election and was placed in the driving seat when it comes to negotiating greater devolution. Angus Robertson, the SNP’s Westminster leader, recently stated that his party wants to negotiate the transfer of even greater tax and welfare powers to Scotland.

The Scotland Bill will make Holyrood responsible for raising about 40 per cent of the country’s taxes, with powers to set the thresholds and rates of income tax included in the legislation. SNP MPs at Westminster will no doubt be pushing to make the Scottish government responsible for raising all the money it spends. No surprises there then, but we have to be careful that any moves in that direction do not harm businesses that conduct their operations in both countries. For instance, if income tax levels are different and/or changes to the National Minimum Wage (NMW) are made independently, then confusion could reign. We must be careful not to create a situation where Scotland sets the agenda for the rest of the UK and this surely strengthens the case for English votes for English laws (EVEL).

Moving away from this subject, the issue of zero hours contracts was a hot topic leading up to the election and I’m glad to see positive steps being made regarding this subject. The government acted in advance of the Queen’s Speech to outlaw the use of exclusivity clauses in zero hours contracts and as part of the Enterprise Bill it indicated that there would be a further crackdown on the abuse of such contracts. Details are pretty scarce but the government has entered into a period of consultation on the issue and we can expect to hear more soon.

As I’ve outlined in previous blogs, although they are certainly being abused in some cases, when used correctly zero hours contracts are a force for good and offer flexible employment opportunities. Therefore, I think that any legislation must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater and hinder the employment of those who are happy to work under this type of contract.

It’s also good to hear that a harder line will be taken against those failing to pay the NMW. A ‘naming and shaming’ process has already begun and the government has so far publicly named 201 employers who have failed to pay their workers the NMW, with total arrears of over £635,000 and total penalties of over £248,000. Companies could now face financial penalties of up to £20,000 if they don’t pay the NMW and shaming could also result in serious reputational consequences.

I’m pleased that this type of decisive action is being taken, as in my opinion we should all be working towards paying the Living Wage in the security industry as a minimum in order to benefit from increased staff motivation and retention rates, reduced absenteeism and recruitment costs. Hopefully, we’ll see greater moves in this direction going forward.

As a security industry professional, another bill that caught my attention was the Investigatory Powers Bill – colloquially referred to as the Snooper’s Charter. This was put on the backburner during the previous coalition government but the Home Secretary, Theresa May, has resurrected it, and as well as enabling the tracking of Internet and social media use, it will also strengthen the security services’ warranted powers for the bulk interception of the content of communications. Although this has not proved popular with civil liberties groups, those with nothing to worry about should not be concerned about this legislation, as we need to do everything possible to prevent terrorist attacks.

I’m generally positive about the moves outlined in the Queen’s Speech and feel that the issues I have outlined will be addressed thoroughly and fairly through the proposed legislation. However, my positivity is tempered by the growing threat of increased devolution and I fear that we haven’t heard the last about Scottish independence.

Have we reached the end of the thin blue line?

I’m Peter Webster, chief executive of Corps Security, and this is where I examine the issues affecting the security industry. My thoughts and opinions are intended to generate debate and whether you agree or disagree with them, you’re welcome to post your comments below.Image

A few weeks ago there was an incident at Corps Security that could have cost us a significant sum of money. Our Chief Financial Officer received an email, purportedly from me, asking how to arrange payment to a third party. Plausible though it sounds, the email was also peppered with pleasantries, so he immediately knew that it couldn’t possibly be from me! After we established that it was an attempt at cyber fraud, we wrote back asking for the name of the person to pay and their bank account details, which were given to us by return. Therefore swift action could have identified the perpetrator through the bank account before it was inevitably closed.

Now at this point we called the police to provide them with this information, so that appropriate action could be taken. Let’s just say that the level of disinterest we were met with was truly shocking. Effectively, we were simply asked to report it so that it could be recorded, and informed that no further action would be taken.

This albeit anecdotal experience is just one example of what appears to be a worrying trend regarding the police service’s desire, or ability, to deal with certain criminal acts. Retail crime is at the sharp end of this policy and the British Retail Consortium (BRC) has expressed its members’ fears that the police regard shoplifting as a ‘victimless crime’, which is not to be taken seriously. To my mind nothing could be further from the truth.

In January, the BRC published details of a study which found that UK retailers recorded an estimated three million offences against them in 2013-14, while the average value of each theft in-store increased by 36 per cent to £241 – the highest level for 10 years. This rise has helped to push up the direct cost of retail crime by 18 per cent to £603m during this period.

Part of the problem appears to stem from The Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, which received Royal Assent in March 2014. Section 176 makes theft from a shop of goods worth £200 or less a summary-only offence, which can be considered for police-led prosecution providing a guilty plea is indicated. For some this was seen as going soft on shoplifters and did not take into account that a sum of just £50 can seriously affect a small shopkeeper’s bottom line.

This isn’t a recent problem though. Back in 2013 crime logs revealed police in Birmingham were failing to record or investigate more than 60 per cent of shoplifting offences in the city. Hard to believe I know, but some cases were being ignored because police wrongly believed shoplifting – a criminal offence under the Theft Act 1968 – was a civil offence. It seems that this level of ignorance wasn’t just an isolated case either and despite assurances from the Police Federation that it does take the matter seriously, a growing raft of evidence suggests otherwise to the extent that shoplifting is effectively being decriminalised by stealth.

I appreciate that the police service has witnessed some massive cuts over recent years, having lost nearly 16,000 officers from forces in England and Wales – the equivalent of losing all the police forces in the south west of England. Challenged on the implications of this, Paul Ford, Secretary of Police Federation National Detective Forum, has stated that these issues are affecting the police service’s ability to protect communities and to respond to calls.

It does appear, however, that the issue is as much about resource allocation as it is about numbers of police. Massive amounts of time, manpower and money is put into thwarting the growing terrorist threat and while this is wholly necessary, it is at the expense of what are considered less serious crimes. Unfortunately, it is Joe Public that bears the brunt of such decisions.

My big concern is where this will ultimately lead. Yes, the retail sector is already feeling the effects, but other sectors are suffering too. In my last blog I referenced the fact that during the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Robbery police decided not to respond to an intruder alert issued by the alarm receiving centre. We still don’t know why but it proved to be a very costly mistake.

Equally, those who have had the misfortune to be victims of burglary, vandalism or criminal damage will know only too well that in most cases the issuing of a crime reference number is the extent of police involvement.

It seems that victims of crime are being forced into a position where the only alternatives to police inaction are to launch a costly and time consuming civil legal action, or simply take it on the chin. I’m extremely uncomfortable with both scenarios and believe that the only way to prevent crime paying is to have a robust and effective police service that acts as a deterrent to those with criminal intent. Anything less puts us all in danger.

It’s time to take a top down approach to security provision

I’m Peter Webster, chief executive of Corps Security, and this is where I examine the issues affecting the security industry. My thoughts and opinions are intended to generate debate and whether you agree or disagree with them, you’re welcome to post your comments below. Image I’m Peter Webster, Chief Executive of Corps Security, and this is where I examine the issues affecting the security industry. My thoughts and opinions are intended to generate debate and whether you agree or disagree with them, you’re welcome to post your comments below.

It is a constant source of amazement to me just how many UK organisations adopt a silo mentality when it comes to their security provision. They source their intruder alarm, CCTV, access control, fire detection and alarm monitoring services from different providers and when key holding, manned guarding and alarm response services are also considered it can mean that there are several different contracts in place, with every provider operating completely independently of each other.

This is hugely inefficient, both from procurement and administrative perspectives, as well as being enormously cost ineffective. It’s why using managed services from a specialist security solution provider makes more sense on every level. The fact that so many companies fail to recognise the benefits of an integrated approach is particularly surprising given the way it can streamline an entire security infrastructure, make it more operationally efficient and less expensive.

Like many of you I’m sure, the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Robbery both shocked and amazed me. The fact that such an audacious robbery was carried out so successfully in an age where surveillance, access control and alarm technology has never been more sophisticated, was simply incredible. The thieves even managed to come and go on two separate occasions. They first entered the building after 9.00pm on 2nd April and left shortly after 8:00am on 3rd April, and then returned to the scene soon after 10:00pm on 4th April and were recorded on CCTV leaving the premises at around 6:40am on 5th April.

It also appears that the police decided not to respond to an intruder alarm alert issued by the alarm receiving centre. We are yet to discover why but in a statement Scotland Yard said, ‘It is too early to say if the handling of the call would have had an impact on the outcome of the incident.’ Given what we now know, I think that it would have been prudent to have at least attended the scene.

While more details will emerge over the forthcoming days and weeks, it is clear that there was a disconnect at some point in the process, and follow up actions were not carried out properly. A more joined up approach to the building’s security provision would have created a more effective operational system where others would have been asked to investigate in such an event and more sophisticated technology implemented. For example, we’ve all seen the image of the hole that was drilled to get to the safety deposit boxes, so was a seismic detection system in place and was the intruder alarm correctly specified?

If a single management process is desirable, which organisation should manage the overall contract? As the user of the technology, it is my view that the remote monitoring service provider should lead the way to providing management of the whole security infrastructure. It has to monitor and react to any incidents and should be managing the specification of equipment in order to provide the best level of security at the most efficient cost.

Leading remote monitoring service providers can undertake an in-depth analysis of an organisation’s activities, premises and facilities, and it is only after completing a comprehensive risk and threat assessment that the most appropriate security solution is configured. Preferably the monitoring provider will not install equipment itself as, by remaining independent, it will be able to work with best-in-class integrators, therefore ensuring that the most appropriate security technology infrastructure will be put in place – one that can be monitored to best effect.

A fully integrated solution also reduces spend and enhances protection by cost effectively combining the use of manned guarding, surveillance technology and remote monitoring. This holistic approach avoids sub-dividing various service offerings into separate departments, providing a complete solution that combines the most appropriate elements of each discipline. The savings can be significant and as a pioneer of this approach, Corps Security has demonstrated that we can reduce a customer’s overall spend by up to 30 per cent without detriment to its security regime, simply by replacing costly manned guarding with less costly, but equally effective, remote monitoring services.

One of the reasons for the status quo is the misapprehension that remote monitoring companies only do monitoring and there is no alternative but to use different suppliers for various disciplines. This is simply not the case and, as I suspect the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit robbery will demonstrate, there are inherent dangers associated with a fragmented approach to security provision.

It’s all to play for as we get ready to go to the polls

I’m Peter Webster, chief executive of Corps Security, and this is where I examine the issues affecting the security industry. My thoughts and opinions are intended to generate debate and whether you agree or disagree with them, you’re welcome to post your comments below.

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I’m Peter Webster, chief executive of Corps Security, and this is where I examine the issues affecting the security industry. My thoughts and opinions are intended to generate debate and whether you agree or disagree with them, you’re welcome to post your comments below.

As I write this blog, last Thursday’s Channel 4/Sky ‘election special’ programme is firmly in my mind and it brought into sharp focus just how tight this contest will be. With much more debate, comment and analysis to take place between now and 7th May, I’ve been giving some thought to the effect the policies of the Labour and Conservative parties could have on the security industry.

I should of course point out that although one of these two parties will almost certainly form the next government, with no outright leader in the polls the chances are that they will need to join forces with one of the smaller parties to form a majority. The success, or otherwise, of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat partnership of the last five years is a moot point and with public enthusiasm for government by coalition at its lowest in 30 years, that’s exactly what we look set to have. Therefore, the impact of the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party (SNP), UKIP and the Green Party etc. should not be underestimated.

With party manifestos yet to be published the issue of spending continues to dominate the political discussion. Broadly speaking, the Conservatives will focus on continued fiscal consolidation, UK devolution, and a renegotiation of EU membership, while labour will look towards a less aggressive deficit reduction programme in order to limit what it perceives to be the negative effects of austerity.

I think that the Tories’ promise of a referendum on EU membership will continue to cause a degree of uncertainty for those in the security industry that export their goods and services outside of the UK. Similarly, if Labour forms an alliance with the SNP, the whole issue of Scottish independence could raise its head again. While these macro issues are obviously important, it is only by drilling down into some of the specific points that we can identify what the effect each party could have on the security industry.

During the interviews Jeremy Paxman conducted with David Cameron and Ed Miliband during The Battle for Number 10 programme, zero hours contracts was a recurring theme. Regular readers of my blogs will know that I think that they can play a positive role in the security sector by offering employment to a diverse group of people who don’t want set hours and would otherwise find it difficult to earn money. That said, it is clear that some employers are abusing zero hours contracts to create an intolerable situation for their employees, either by putting them ‘on call’ 24/7 or by stopping them from taking additional work elsewhere. This is unacceptable.

However, I think that both the Conservatives and Labour need to be careful on this issue and stop relying on hyperbole. Labour seems most vociferous about exploitative zero hours contracts, with Ed Miliband claiming they have ‘no place in the 21st century’. The Conservatives seem far more circumspect and Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, has argued that they ‘provide people with a flexible way of working and the freedom to arrange jobs around other commitments’.

Whichever way the pendulum swings on this issue, there are lot of people who could be affected by any changes. Data from the Labour Force Survey (LFS) indicates that the number of people employed on zero hours contracts between October and December 2014, was 697,000 or 2.3 per cent of all people in employment. Of course nobody knows how many of these choose to have a flexible contract as it suits their lifestyle and alternatively how many feel that it is potentially exploiting them.

A related issue, and one that I have also blogged about recently, concerns how the two main parties will help the nation’s lowest earners enhance their pay packets. Wage rates in the manned guarding sector have been a significant cause of concern for many years and, to my mind, it is not helping our cause to improve the image of the security industry.

The government recently announced that the minimum wage would be raised by three per cent to £6.70 an hour from October 2015 – welcome news that will give a pay rise to over 1.4 million of the lowest paid workers in our country. Labour, however, has stated that it will raise the National Minimum Wage (NMW) to £8 an hour before the end of the next parliament and also promises to strengthen enforcement ‘so that those paying less than the minimum wage do not get away with it.’

I would like to see more employers pay the rates outlined by the Living Wage, wherever and whenever possible. The current Living Wage is 21 per cent higher than the NMW at £7.85 an hour and this rises to £9.15 an hour in London. During 2014 the number of accredited Living Wage employers more than doubled, with over 1,000 employers across the UK having now signed up. That said, any improvement to the NMW will have a positive impact on those at the sharp end of the manned guarding sector.

On a wider level, proposed changes to public sector procurement policy will also affect small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs) like Corps Security. Labour has stated its desire to establish a Small Business Administration and even though this is a noble objective, it appears the Labour Finance and Industry Group’s recommendation is to ensure there is at least one procurement professional for every £1m of central government spend which seems ill-thought out as, for example, a £10m contract would require the employment of 10 different buyers to administer it!

The Conservatives, meanwhile, are ‘aspiring’ to channel 25 per cent of spend through SMEs and in 2014 it commissioned a report by McKain Consultants, which recommended simplify bidding for contracts and offering suppliers an even stronger route to challenge procurement approaches and decisions.

I’m pleased that both parties are pledging to do something positive on this issue, as in recent times the security industry has had to bear witness to what can happen when things go wrong. Who can forget the debacle when G4S was contracted to provide all of the security for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games? Contrast that with the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, where 16 different security service providers were used and it went without a hitch.

As the election race heats up, I’m sure there will be many more talking points to come. Please feel free to post your comments about which party or scenario you think would be the best for the security industry.

Another fine mess they’ve gotten us into

I’m Peter Webster, chief executive of Corps Security, and this is where I examine the issues affecting the security industry. My thoughts and opinions are intended to generate debate and whether you agree or disagree with them, you’re welcome to post your comments below.

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When news broke yesterday morning about an investigation by the BBC, which has uncovered that a large number of licensed security guards could be fraudulently working in the UK after buying Security Industry Authority (SIA) licences for cash, it was not the start to the working week that I had hoped for. If the allegations contained in the report are found to be true, the implications could be far-reaching and potentially devastating.

That some individuals and colleges are prepared to fraudulently sit exams or forge results in return for financial gain is shocking. It beggars belief that anyone who values the role security professionals play in protecting people, property and assets could sink so low as to jeopardise their safety.

Yet it seems that the problem could be widespread and the report heard from one former SIA employee, who claimed that a large number of colleges were involved in this activity. With the potential for a terrorist attack higher than ever, the fact that a researcher was able to fraudulently obtain an SIA licence and then received a job offer at a power station and an interview to guard Canary Wharf, will be ringing alarm bells amongst those procuring these types of services.

Along with all other security providers, we cannot know if the establishments in the report have certified any of Corps Security’s colleagues, as we do not receive their certificates, only their licences. The SIA receives confirmation of the examination certification as part of their work in approving licence applications.

The Office of the Qualifications and Examinations Regulator (OFQUAL) is responsible for regulating qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland with The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) regulating qualifications in Scotland. They appoint Awarding Organisations who develop qualifications and operate the examination system against the SIA specifications, there are 10 Awarding Organisations accredited at present. Most importantly they approve training and assessment centres, register candidates, provide evidence of their identity, award the qualification and input data into the SIA qualifications database. They must also provide quality assurance of the assessment and qualification process.

The training providers are responsible for delivering training courses that result in the qualifications required for an SIA licence. Significantly the training providers operate the examinations that lead to the qualification and this is where this latest scandal has emerged. Perhaps it would make sense for the examinations to be operated by the Awarding Organisations and not the training providers??

In reality the SIA is a long way from this scandal, but surely they have the responsibility for the overall quality assurance of the licensing process? This is a responsibility they have failed to execute in this case. The report highlights that the SIA has failed to fulfil its obligation to ensure the overall quality assurance of the licensing process. It has failed to be vigilant about the organisations it allows to conduct the training, assessment and certification of potential security personnel.

While deeply shocked, angry and disappointed that, once again, the security industry has been brought into disrepute by those working within it, I can’t help thinking that the proposed move to statutory licensing of private security businesses will only exacerbate rather than eradicate the problem.

It is claimed that business licensing and regulation will support those organisations that can demonstrate that they are ‘fit and proper’ to supply security industry services. However, if more of the vetting and approval work is passed to companies in the industry under business licensing, as opposed to being undertaken by the SIA, it stands to reason that we can expect even more corruption and fraudulent licence holders.

To qualify for an SIA business licence, an organisation must comply with issues surrounding identity, criminality, financial probity, integrity, and conformance with relevant British Standards. That’s all well and good if these organisations are all above board and 100 per cent legitimate. Back in the real world, the fact that business licensing will be largely self-regulating, with little in the way of an independent auditing procedure, opens the door to problems, and the government is simply deluding itself if it thinks otherwise.

The SIA’s Approved Contractor Scheme (ACS), which demonstrates that approved contractors are meeting the required standards each year, has far more compliance auditing than business licensing will.

Unfortunately, I can foresee the end of the ACS if business licensing comes into effect.

But if the SIA cannot get the licensing process right, what chance is there of successfully implementing business licensing when the dangers of rogue companies getting legitimate licences to trade are far greater?

And that’s not all. The report highlights that the SIA has failed to fulfil its obligation to ensure the overall quality assurance of the licensing process. It has failed to be vigilant about the organisations it allows to conduct the training, assessment and certification of potential security personnel. If the SIA cannot get this right, what chance has it got of successfully implementing business licensing when the dangers of rogue companies getting legitimate licences to trade are far greater?

In response to the findings of the BBC report, the SIA has stated that it takes allegations of training malpractice seriously. I am ultimately confident that the SIA will sort this out and eventually get it right as the current system is controllable. If some of these key responsibilities are left in the hands of ‘licenced security businesses’ there will certainly be unscrupulous licenced companies that will take advantage of the opportunity to employ people who have not been legitimately qualified to hold a licence.

The Living Wage is a step in the right direction

I’m Peter Webster, chief executive of Corps Security, and this is where I examine the issues affecting the security industry. My thoughts and opinions are intended to generate debate and whether you agree or disagree with them, you’re welcome to post your comments below.

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The level of wage rates in the Manned Guarding sector has been a significant cause of concern for many years. The advent of TUPE has prevented wages going backwards at a contract change but it has done nothing to help improve many wage rates.

It is not uncommon in the South East to see many examples of customers insisting on wage levels of £10.00 per hour plus. However we still see far more examples of security officers receiving the National Minimum Wage (NMW), especially the further North you travel in the country. When bidding for a contract, to comply with TUPE you have to maintain the wage levels currently paid, even if it is at NMW level.

It is a sad fact, but true, and it is not helping our cause to improve the image of the security industry. Ultimately wage rates are driven by what the customer is willing to pay, either directly or indirectly.

Over recent years, greater attention has been paid to the Living Wage, a campaign that was launched by members of London Citizens in 2001. The founders were parents in the east end of London, who wanted to remain in work, but found that despite working two or more National Minimum Wage jobs they were struggling to make ends meet, and were left with no time for family and community life.

The current Living Wage is 21 per cent higher than the National Minimum Wage at £7.85 an hour and this rises to £9.15 an hour in London. With a great deal of publicity being given to it, including endorsements from high profile figures such as the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, it’s an idea that is growing in popularity. So much so that during 2014 the number of accredited Living Wage employers more than doubled, with over 1,000 employers across the UK having now signed up.

As a consequence we are starting to see more and more customers looking at ways to pay the Living Wage and improve the incomes of their manned guarding personnel. Companies are increasingly viewing their participation in the Living Wage as a ‘badge of honour’ and the campaign has, very cleverly in my opinion, drawn on their desire to demonstrate high levels of corporate social responsibility (CSR). They aren’t always doing it for purely altruistic reasons either – they realise that there are negative connotations in paying the National Minimum Wage, especially if profits are high. This is particularly the case in industries like the financial sector, which has some very high earners. How would the public feel if these companies were paying people National Minimum Wage to protect their people and property, while giving other personnel hundreds of thousands of pounds in bonuses?

Increased staff motivation and retention rates, reduced absenteeism and recruitment costs are common benefits reported following implementation of the Living Wage. These are all issues that directly affect the security industry and we all need to look at the long-term benefits of buying into this idea.

Sceptics might suggest that moving to the Living Wage from the National Minimum Wage simply means paying the same people more money for doing the same job. Although in the short term that’s perfectly true, it would also mean that those same people take greater pride in their work, feel more valued, are better engaged and are more committed to their roles. For employers, it means less staff churn and the ability to make a more worthwhile investment in training, as people are less likely to leave the company.

Looking longer-term, better pay also means that the industry becomes more attractive as a career and higher calibre people will want to join our ranks. Increasing the professionalism of the industry has been a focus of mine for some time and I think that this would be a great way to help achieve this objective. Ultimately, the Living Wage makes sense whichever way you look at it.

Spy in the sky?

I’m Peter Webster, chief executive of Corps Security, and this is where I examine the issues affecting the security industry. My thoughts and opinions are intended to generate debate and whether you agree or disagree with them, you’re welcome to post your comments below.

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The must-have Christmas present last year – particularly for boys both big and small – was a drone or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). While to the uninitiated they might just appear to be a variation on the traditional remote control helicopter, sales of recreational drones are going through the roof with the basic flying craft costing around £50, right up to the sophisticated long range HD video streaming ones costing several thousand pounds. These machines can deliver incredible views captured from above and have the ability to stream video footage to a smartphone or tablet.

It should be remembered, however, that drones are nothing new and the first devices were used by the US military in the Vietnam War as reconnaissance vehicles. More recently, military drones have been fitted with missiles but their use has diversified and during 2014 many column inches were dedicated to the fact that companies such as Amazon and Google were suggesting they can develop them to deliver parcels. While for most people drones are just a bit of harmless fun, there is differing opinion about whether they are good or bad, and whether their use should be more tightly controlled.

I would like to start on a positive note by stating my belief that drones could be very useful in certain scenarios where security companies operate. A prime example is outdoor music concerts or festivals, where a drone could be used to monitor crowds and ensure that people are kept safe. A potentially dangerous situation could be identified early on and personnel on the ground could be deployed to attend before it escalates. Equally, they have great potential when it comes to monitoring remote sites such as reservoirs and oil installations, for example.

These devices can also enhance building access control, particularly in environments where there is a lot of perimeter fencing. A drone high up in the air can easily identify who is coming and going and it could be a lot cheaper than installing CCTV to cover the same area.

So, that’s the positive, what about the negative? There’s no doubt that they are being used for criminal activities, such as spying on people and even listening in on meetings and conversations through the use of advanced microphone technology. It’s something that was discussed at a recent Corps Security Breakfast Briefing by Jason Dibley of QCC Global, a leading expert in technical surveillance countermeasures. While it might sound far-fetched, Jason made it very clear, through a number of examples, that drones are being used in this way.

Then there’s the issue of drones being used where they shouldn’t be – often due to ignorance and stupidity. Last year a drone came within 20ft of a passenger plane as it was about to land at Heathrow Airport, while French authorities issued an alert when drones mysteriously appeared above nuclear power plants.

Perhaps more worrying though is how they could be used for terrorist purposes. Putting it simply, if a drone can drop a parcel then it can drop a bomb or missile, and last year Sir David Omand, a former director at GCHQ, warned that shopping centres, sporting events and public gatherings could face chemical or biological attacks by terror groups using drones. He noted that although such a scenario has so far not posed a real danger to UK citizens, it is a threat that the authorities took seriously during the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Dealing with drones that are being used for malicious purposes presents its own set of problems though. Some of these devices weigh around 20kg and it is simply not sensible to just shoot them out of the sky or even to jam their operating signals – particularly if there is suspicion that it is carrying a bomb. In densely populated areas the consequences of such action could be catastrophic.

There have been calls for tighter regulation regarding this equipment and how it is used. However, introducing licenses and purchasing restrictions would only have an impact on legitimate users. Would it make a difference to criminals and terrorists? I think not. There are clearly good and bad uses for this technology and while there are no easy answers when it comes to how they are used, it is a debate that must continue.

25/02/2015… Since writing there has been some very interesting coverage on the BBC about mysterious drones flying above Paris at night.  See link.