Now is the time to do nothing

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 the government announced its Public Bodies Review in 2010, like many others I had no inkling that the future of the Security Industry Authority (SIA) would be at stake. The simple reason for this immunity, I thought, was that since 2003 the security sector has benefited enormously from its existence and significantly improved the way that it operates. What’s more, nowadays it doesn’t cost the government a penny to run as it is funded by the industry itself.

Perhaps most importantly, the SIA has made sure that only those who should work in the security sector are permitted to do so. Over the last 10 years 56,000 individuals have been refused licences – people who for a variety of reasons – from criminal records to unverifiable employment histories – are deemed unfit to be in a public facing role.

Government officials chose to ignore this important point and deregulation was initially mooted as the way forward, a move that left unchecked would have caused mayhem.

In response, the industry worked together to lobby on behalf of regulation and prevent the SIA’s abolition. I’m glad to say that it was successful and in 2011 the government had a rethink on its original proposal. However, rather than keeping the status quo it set out plans for the phased transition to a business regulation regime with a business based individual licensing process. It was claimed that this will give businesses more responsibility for the individuals that they employ, and achieve a reduction in the regulatory cost and burden on the private security industry as a whole.

The industry embraced the business licensing idea as it was far better than the alternative of no regulation. The industry even started to convince itself this was a good idea.

However the difficulties and risks around business based individual licensing were soon realised and the general opinion was that this was far better being undertaken by the SIA. An opinion I whole heartedly support.

So, having convinced everybody that business licensing was a good idea, now the latest thinking is that we will have both business and individual licensing.

Given that the aim of the Public Bodies Review is to improve the transparency, accountability, and cost effectiveness of all public services, this proposal would appear to contradict these objectives. Put simply, huge amounts of administrative duplication and, therefore, expense would be required to implement it.

If this seems like a very messy situation, that’s because it is. Unfortunately, many of those in the industry who have been happy with the role and performance of the SIA have had their heads turned by the idea of business regulation and individual licensing, and now see it as the way forward.

I’m not one of them and I’m convinced that keeping the current system and doing precisely nothing is the right thing to do. I’m not alone in this view and following the government’s Consultation on a Future Regulatory Regime for the Private Security Industry, which was carried out in late 2012, the summary of responses was published earlier this month. The responses highlight that a lot of people are dubious about the benefits of change.

A total of 776 replies to the consultation were received and while 50 per cent agreed with the government’s proposals for a phased transition to a business regulation regime (as opposed to the option of no regulation at all), 36 per cent were against and 14 per cent didn’t know. Although those in favour, including government ministers, are claiming victory, another way of looking at it is that an equal number are not in favour. Either way, it shows that there is still a great deal of concern about changing a system that works, and it is clear that many people voted in favour as a way to avoid complete deregulation.

Interestingly, 84 per cent of respondents expressed the view that the regulator should continue to issue licences for individuals – suggesting that the existing system has the support of the industry. There was also agreement that the regulator should continue to issue a licence card, as it was instantly identifiable, minimised the risk of forgery and fraud, maintained public confidence and was easily recognisable to law enforcement agencies.

The idea that business based regulation will better control the type of companies that can operate in the sector is a red herring – because there is no current major problem as far as I can see. Companies are not allowed to employ unlicensed individuals, so by definition they have to be above board. Equally, the current situation allows individuals the freedom to change companies, while providing their new employers with the peace of mind that a new recruit has passed a rigorous independent set of checks.

Even though I’m firmly in favour of keeping the SIA, my view is that it could, and should, do more with the power at its disposal. Take, for instance, security consultant and private investigator licensing. The latter was first discussed at the beginning of the SIA’s existence and is finally set to come into effect in 2014. While it will be a case of better late than never, 11 years is simply far too long and the amount of procrastination on this issue has been both frustrating and potentially damaging.

There is also the important issue of directly employed security staff who currently do not need to be licensed. Surely the time has now come to resolve the anomaly?

However, keeping the existing situation is a more than credible alternative to the government’s preferred option. We have a proven, cost effective and reliable system that has the potential for further improvement. The needless introduction of two layers of licensing, instead of just one for individuals, will cost vast sums of money and be highly disruptive – just at a time when the perception and reputation of the industry is beginning to be restored after the well reported recent difficulties of some companies.

While I sympathise with the position of those who have accepted the proposals on the basis that any regulation better than no regulation, I think that it is time we stood up for keeping the SIA as it is – who is with me?

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