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Security Industry Authority

Volume 467: debated on Tuesday 13 November 2007

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on Security Industry Authority licensing checks and the issue of entitlement to work in the United Kingdom.

The Security Industry Authority was established in 2003 under the terms of the Private Security Industry Act 2001. Before its establishment, the private security industry was largely unregulated, with no national licensing system. The legislation sets out that the SIA must establish that applicants are fit and proper before granting them a licence; the detailed criteria are set out in the SIA publication “Get licensed”. The fit and proper person requirement primarily involves establishing that the applicant has undergone training and that identity and criminality checks have been completed. To date, more than 250,000 licences have been issued.

I must make it clear from the outset that it is the legal duty of all employers to ensure that those they employ are entitled to work in the United Kingdom. The SIA has not failed to do anything that it was obliged to do in law. As my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration stated on 11 September 2006, in response to a question from the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies):

“Employers have clear legal responsibilities under the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 which makes it a criminal offence to employ a person who is subject to immigration control unless that person has permission to work in the UK. The possession of a Security Industry Authority licence does not give a person a right to work in the UK, and employers are still expected to assure themselves that their employees have the necessary permission.”—[Official Report, 11 September 2006; Vol. 449, c. 2234W.]

That is a matter of record in this House.

While under no legal obligation, the SIA has the discretion to seek information that applicants have the right to work in the UK. As a responsible organisation, the SIA decided in April 2005 to initiate a limited right-to-work check on 10 per cent. of non-European economic area applicants. I am informed by the SIA that between April 2005 and December 2006, more than 3,000 checks were conducted and 41 individuals were identified who were not entitled to work in the United Kingdom. Licences for those individuals were refused.

Ministers were informed in April 2007 that a Border and Immigration Agency enforcement operation had identified that 44 people employed by a security company did not have the right to work in the UK. Of those, 12 had been subcontracted to a further company that provided staff to guard locations under Metropolitan police contracts. One of the individuals was involved in guarding an MPS facility where modified cars would be taken for any repair work. Those identified at that stage were immediately removed from their posts. The Metropolitan police have assured me that there was no security threat to any of the vehicles that had to visit that facility.

In June this year, the BIA and the SIA agreed that the BIA would carry out a more intensive check of the 10 per cent. sample of non-EEA applicants. That analysis showed that a higher proportion of non-EEA applicants might not have a right to work than the earlier work had suggested. Ministers were informed and immediate action was taken.

From 2 July this year, every applicant identified as a non-EEA national by the SIA also has their right to work in the United Kingdom checked. I am informed by the SIA that of the 32,500 licence decisions made since 2 July 2007, 740 were refused because the SIA was not satisfied that the applicant had a right to work in the UK. I have been advised by the BIA that all those cases are in the process of being investigated with a view to enforcement action. In addition, from 1 October the SIA has required new and tighter identity checks for all applications and renewals.

Although action could be and was immediately taken on new applicants, it remained unclear how many people who had been granted licences before 2 July did not have the right to work. The SIA undertook further work to assess the potential volume of licences that might have been given to people who did not have the right to work in the UK to consider what remedial action should be taken. On 9 August, I set out my approach to the advice I had received. My approach was that the responsible thing to do was to establish the full nature and scale of the problem and to take appropriate action to deal with it, rather than immediately to put incomplete and potentially misleading information into the public domain. Much has been made of the fact that I said the lines to take were not good enough for the press office or Ministers to explain the situation. The fact is that they were not good enough because the analysis of the issue had not been completed.

I took immediate action by asking for work to estimate the numbers involved to be speeded up. I was not content to wait 10 weeks to get these numbers and asked for that time to be halved, and to have preliminary advice on my return to the office on 20 August. I approved a letter from the SIA to senior managers of all 2,000 private security companies on its records reminding them of their obligation as employers to check entitlement under section 8 of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996. I made it clear that I did not want to delay the schedule for its release.

I also approved with modifications a second letter from the Cabinet Office to Government HR directors and departmental security officers reminding them that all staff with access to Government assets should be subject to the requirements of the baseline personnel security standard, which includes the verification of an individual’s right to work in the UK. I will place copies of the two letters in the Library of the House.

I requested an update by 2 pm the following day, and received a further update from officials on 10 August. In that update, officials believed that it should be possible to provide revised estimates of the numbers involved by the end of August. In the advice that I received on 30 August, I was informed that the SIA and the BIA could build the capacity to check the estimated 40,000 non-EEA nationals who had previously been granted licences at the rate of 4,000 a month from October 2007.

On 5 September, I asked for further details on why that process should take so long and also asked the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), who is responsible for crime reduction, to chair a taskforce to resolve and, if possible, to increase the figure of 4,000 a month. The taskforce met on 8 October. As a result of that, the current estimate is that those checks will now be completed in December—much more quickly than originally planned—and I will report again to Parliament when that work is complete. Preliminary work by the BIA has categorised the 6,000 cases checked so far into three groups, although those figures are not finally verified. Provisional assessment from the BIA reports that 77 per cent. of those checked have been shown to have a right to work, with 10.5 per cent. shown not to have a right to work. Checks are ongoing on the remaining 12.5 per cent. I repeat that those are early estimates.

I believe that that is a clear example of the Government’s determination to put in place effective systems and procedures further to protect the public and to keep those systems under review. As has been made clear, possession of an SIA licence does not give a person a right to work in the UK. Employers are expected to assure themselves that their employees have permission to work. That is what the law requires of them. We have nevertheless taken action to tackle illegal working in the security industry sector. As I have demonstrated today, Ministers and officials are taking robust action to satisfy ourselves of the scale of the problem and to ensure that the SIA and the BIA work together to address it.

I thank the Home Secretary for advance sight of her statement.

When the current Prime Minister became leader of the Labour party he heralded, in his words,

“a different type of politics—a more open and honest dialogue: frank about problems, candid about dilemmas, never losing touch with the concerns of people.”

Faced with one of her first tests, why was the Home Secretary not frank and candid about the 5,000 illegal workers licensed to work in sensitive security posts in this country? She has now admitted to the House that she was first told on 12 July, but she instructed officials that the matter was—I quote from her e-mails—

“not ready for public announcement”.

There are two key issues. Has the Home Secretary dealt effectively with the original crisis and has she been open and honest with the public?

The response of the Home Office so far has been blunder, panic and cover-up: blunder when it set up the Security Industry Authority and did not ask it automatically to check when granting security licences to potentially illegal workers; panic when it was first told about that in April; and cover-up when it decided not to tell the public because, according to one of the Home Secretary’s leaked e-mails, she did not think

“the lines to take that we currently have are good enough for Press Office or Ministers”.

She says that that was because the analysis of the issue was not complete. Let us be clear about this. The Government have known about the problem since April. She says that they had not completed the analysis by August. It is now November. The House has been sitting since early October. Is this really the first opportunity that she has had to tell the House about the issue? Is she telling the House that it had nothing to do with the advice that she was given that if the media became aware of the issue, they would be likely to focus on the various “negative stories” associated with SIA licences?

I have a number of specific questions for the Home Secretary; I hope that she will answer each of them. Can she confirm that 11 illegal workers were guarding Metropolitan police buildings? In the case to which she referred of the illegal worker guarding the site where the Prime Minister’s car was parked, how can she, or indeed the Met, be sure that there was no actual or potential security threat? How many more illegal workers were guarding Government buildings or other critical national infrastructure? Can she guarantee that no illegal worker is still guarding any Government, police or military building, or any other part of our critical national infrastructure today? Of the 5,000 illegal workers identified, how many have been caught? How many have been removed from the country?

Given the Home Secretary’s stance on employers, how many employers have been prosecuted because of these discoveries? Does the Border and Immigration Agency now notify the SIA immediately when an SIA licence holder’s work permit expires? If not, why not? And why has the Home Secretary not made proposals to place a statutory duty on the SIA to check immigration status before awarding a licence, given the Home Office position that

“an SIA licence is seen as a demonstration that the holder is a fit and proper person to work in a position of trust within the security industry”?

The Home Secretary no doubt regrets not making this statement some time ago. The Prime Minister spoke of frank and candid government yet, in one of her first actions as Home Secretary, the right hon. Lady put avoiding political embarrassment ahead of solving the problem and informing the public. That is neither frank nor candid.

The right hon. Gentleman says that there are two tests for the Government: whether effective action is taken and whether accurate information is given. I agree that those are the two tests for the Government. I have spelled out the effective action that has been taken already, and the action that we are taking, to tighten the system and to clarify the full extent of those granted licences before 2 July, when the full checks were put in place. I also agree it is important for the Government to give accurate information, which is why I have made it clear that I will return to the House when the speeded-up process of clarifying precisely what the situation is has been completed. I will report the results to the House then.

On the specific points that the right hon. Gentleman has raised, I made clear in my statement the position with respect to the 12 employed on Metropolitan police contracts. I have received assurances from the Metropolitan police that there was no danger to cars from the activities of those guards. It is also clear that the Metropolitan police, and other employers, will review and take seriously their responsibilities to check the right to work of those who are securing their facilities. It is also clear that in writing as I did, not only to 2,000 private security companies but to Government Departments to identify the need to carry out these checks, and in referring the Departments to the specific requirements relating to the employment of security guards in Government areas, I quite rightly undertook to communicate with those who were able to make a difference.

I have a responsibility to act and to explain. I do not make any apologies to the House for being the sort of Minister whose first reaction to an issue is not “What should I say about it?” but “What should I do about it?” That is what I have done. I have taken action and, when I am clear about the situation, I will return to the House and report to it.

I want to make one further point to the right hon. Gentleman. He rightly challenged the original legislation. The Opposition’s approach at the time of our introducing the Private Security Industry Bill, according to the then Member for Surrey Heath, was:

“The Opposition’s approach to the Bill is that it should not place unnecessary, overly complex, bureaucratic or burdensome regulations on the legitimate sector of the industry.”—[Official Report, 28 March 2001; Vol. 365, c. 980.]

To speak now with the hindsight displayed by the right hon. Gentleman is disingenuous, to say the least.

Finally, I share the right hon. Gentleman’s concern that all those who work in this country should have the right to be here, which is why this Government will introduce identity cards for foreign residents from next year. We are yet to learn whether Opposition Members will support that.

I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement, the actions that she has taken and her undertaking to return to the House in December, presumably, to tell us about the outcome of all the inquiries. Is she satisfied that the form that is currently used for an application for a licence allows for full disclosure concerning the right to work? Has she seen the form, and is she satisfied that it does that? Will she undertake to give the appropriate department in the Border and Immigration Agency the resources to complete the task by December 2007?

My right hon. Friend has made an important point. First, the SIA has expected much tighter documentation of identity since 1 October. Secondly, the SIA’s ability to carry out, as it has done since 2 July, the 100 per cent. checks on the right to work of everybody applying for a licence is supported by the ability directly to fax applications to the BIA and by the ability of the BIA to check that information and return it to the SIA. I am content that appropriate new arrangements have been implemented. I am also content that we have speeded up the process for the verification of those granted licences before 2 July, but as my right hon. Friend will have heard, I have constantly argued for faster progress in order to be able to report on licences granted before 2 July.

May I start by apologising on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) for his absence from this statement?

The previous Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid), famously said that the Department was “not fit for purpose”. Following his review, we should remember that the structures and staff in the Home Office are the sole responsibility of this Government. After 10 years in power, and with a slimmed-down Home Office stripped of many of its functions, how can the Secretary of State explain the continued incompetence in her Department? Is it not the case that the Government talk tough on crime and immigration, whereas the reality is weakness and failure? The Government need to spend less time legislating to create party political divides and more time concentrating on running their core functions effectively.

Will the Home Secretary publish the findings of her internal inquiries? Will she also tackle the entire culture of spin and obfuscation in her Department? The legions of media officers working in the Home Office are paid by us, the taxpayers, to inform the public and not to conceal the deficiencies of her Department. The Home Office would benefit from a fresh approach based on frankness, openness and transparency.

Why did the Home Secretary not report the information to Parliament when MPs returned on 8 October, the same day that the taskforce met? What confidence can the public have that the Home Office is capable of running the vast ID cards database, when it is unable to administer much smaller projects properly? Is not the truth that even with a new Prime Minister, a new Home Secretary and all the restructuring, the Home Office under Labour is still not fit for purpose?

We are all sorry that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) decided to campaign today rather than attending the Chamber.

The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) is wrong: there has not been a blunder in operational terms. In fact, the issues were identified because of improved joint working between the SIA and the BIA going beyond the requirements of the SIA licensing regime in order to make sure that there was a belt-and-braces approach to ensuring the right to work of those applying for a SIA licence.

In operational terms, there has been no blunder; there has been an improvement in processes. I have already reiterated to the hon. Gentleman that I believe that the job of any responsible Minister and certainly the Home Secretary is to provide this House and the public with accurate and clear information. That has been my priority throughout.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that most sensible people would expect any Home Secretary, particularly a new Home Secretary, to want to know the full facts before disclosing them? Following the point made by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), is my right hon. Friend going to ensure that all these private sector employers are prosecuted for their criminal offence in employing people who should not have been employed? Where they are holders of Government contracts for security, will she ensure that they lose them, even if in some cases it makes it more difficult for them to give funds to the Tory party?

We take seriously the responsibility of employers to carry out right-to-work checks for their employees, which is why the BIA and my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration have already undertaken a consultation on what more we can do to ensure that employers who negligently employ people without a right to work face appropriate civil penalties and that those who knowingly employ workers without a right to work actually face much stiffer penalties. That will help to ensure that all employers live up to their responsibilities. Alongside that, we will continue to ensure that the BIA provides support and assistance to help employers to carry out that activity.

Has the Home Secretary asked herself why all the failures of her Department are in the same direction—the direction of lax application of the rules, failure to apply checks and failure to deport people? Is it not because, within the discretion granted by law, officials do what they believe their masters want them to do? Have they not reached the conclusion that this Government want to increase and allow the maximum amount of work and settlement in this country, while minimising the problems and minimising the numbers?

The right hon. Gentleman is just plain wrong. As I spelled out to the hon. Member for Taunton a few moments ago, there has not been any failure of the processes during the course of this activity. There has been a tightening of the requirement to put alongside an application for an SIA licence a check for a right to work. That is not a statutory obligation: it is an additional operational safeguard put in by the Government and jointly adopted by the SIA and the BIA. It is an improvement of the position, not a blunder or a failure.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her very clear statement. Will she confirm that, during the passage of the Bill that established the Security Industry Authority, no Opposition Member—then or since—raised the issue of transferring clear legal responsibility from employers to the SIA? Will she also confirm that in dealing with this issue in July, she took cognisance, first, of the fact that we need a robust and reliable biometric database to be able to identify those who should not be claiming and able to work in this country and, secondly, of the critical importance of not equivocating or agonising about the analysis, but actually to act? My right hon. Friend did exactly that and we should congratulate her today on the steps that she has taken.

I did not have the pleasure of serving on the Committee that considered the Private Security Industry Act 2001. As my right hon. Friend says, however, I understand that the Opposition at no point argued for the things that they now argue should be in that legislation. In fact, as I have pointed out, they specifically argued for a proportional and light-touch approach.

My right hon. Friend is right: the changes made have been the result of improved operational activity between the Security Industry Authority and the Border and Immigration Agency, and of our not being satisfied solely with the statutory obligations on the Security Industry Authority—we have increased the obligations over and above those originally required in law. Our action has toughened the system.

When the fiasco first came to light, did the Home Secretary tell the Prime Minister? If not, why not? If she did, did the Prime Minister remind her of his promise to abandon spin and embrace candour?

I did not tell the Prime Minister because there was not a fiasco; action was taken to strengthen the system, and there was an investigation to provide the evidence to allow an explanation to be given to the public. There was no fiasco or blunder; there was strengthened and improved action.

Will my right hon. Friend expand on how the introduction of ID cards for foreign nationals will help employers have certainty at the point at which they take people on? Does not the Opposition’s resistance to that proposal suggest that their concerns expressed today are more crocodile tears than real ones?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am genuinely interested in how we can ensure that only those people who have a right to be and work in this country can do so. It is the responsibility of employers to check that, but it will be manifestly easier to do so if the people who have a right to stay and work in this country have ID cards. Frankly, arguing for tougher controls and attempting to criticise the Government, while being unwilling to support the things that will make the system stronger and better able to ensure that only those who should be here can work, is, to say the least, hypocritical. As my hon. Friend suggests, it has much more to do with political soundbites than serious politics and policy.

The Home Secretary stated:

“The fit and proper person requirement primarily involves establishing”

among other things,

“that identity . . . checks have been completed”.

Will the Home Secretary explain how an identity check does not show immigration status and whether the person identified has a work permit? Surely we identify somebody so that we know what they are about, yet at least one in 10—possibly one in five—security personnel work illegally.

As of 1 October, one of the things that we have tightened is the documents that must be provided to the Security Industry Authority to identify somebody correctly. The hon. Gentleman, however, identifies a problem: clever criminals can forge documents. That is why a Government-managed identity scheme for foreign residents will provide more certainty of identity. Given his question, perhaps he will support that.

When a full analysis of the situation is made, does the Home Secretary believe that it would be appropriate to publicise a list of all employers who appear to be either ignoring or understating their responsibilities?

I would not want to make a commitment to the House that I was not clear that we could deliver. My hon. Friend, however, makes an important point: it is the employer’s responsibility to check the right to work of somebody employed in the security industry. To help them to do that, we have introduced 100 per cent. right-to-work checks, using records of the Border and Immigration Agency, from July this year. We have given the industry’s employers every assistance, which I hope they will take up, and I hope that they will live up to their responsibilities, which are clearly spelt out in law.

The questions referred to in the statement were tabled in September 2006 in response to industry insiders who were telling anyone who would listen that that was what was happening. Why did it take the Home Office an extra seven months to discover something that a Back Bench Member of Parliament and anyone in the security industry knew about in September?

As we made clear in response to the hon. Gentleman’s question, it is the responsibility of security industry employers to check the right to work of those people whom they employ. I have made that case clearly already.

I congratulate the Home Secretary on using the SIA, set up by this Government, to tackle this particularly difficult problem. What assessment has she made of the effect that the light-touch approach advocated by the Opposition would have on her ability to deal with this problem?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Up to 2003, it was of course the case that there was no regulation for people working in the security industry. It was this Government’s willingness to take through the Private Security Industry Act 2001 and set up the SIA that enabled us to identify and solve the problem and to strengthen the restrictions on those working in the security industry.

How many of the people identified so far have held high-security jobs in Scotland? What discussions has the Home Secretary had with Scottish Ministers? Can she confirm that even though she has known about this issue since April she has made no attempt to consult or inform Scottish Ministers, even though this is a serious and significant issue north of the border?

No, I obviously cannot give the hon. Gentleman details about those people working in Scotland. Scottish Ministers will understand their responsibility, as do UK Ministers, for ensuring that employment law is appropriately applied.

Is not this the industry that, under the Conservative Government, was allowed to get away with paying wages of, on occasion, less than £1 an hour? Was it not our Government’s minimum wage policy that put a stop to that? Is it not now clear that certain elements of the industry are continuing to try to get away with paying derisory wages, and should not my right hon. Friend be congratulated on trying to put a stop to that again?

I certainly think that it is important that we support high-quality employers in the security industry. That is why one of the improvements that the SIA has been able to make is an assured employers scheme, which acts as a kitemark of high-quality employment practices, including as from 1 August the ability of employers to verify the right to work of those whom they employ. That is regulation that, as my hon. Friend points out, supports responsible employment in the security industry and has improved the industry as a whole.

Following the question by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), can the Home Secretary tell the House on which date the Prime Minister was informed about this issue?

The hon. Gentleman should listen. I said that I did not inform the Prime Minister because there was no blunder—[Interruption.] Action was being taken to strengthen—[Interruption.]

Order. Let the Home Secretary speak. It is out of order for hon. Members to shout across the Chamber.

Action was being taken to strengthen the system. Every day of the week, Ministers in the Home Office take action to strengthen and improve the system and we do not go running to tell the Prime Minister about it every time.

Perhaps I, along with Members from other parties who were on the Committee that passed the legislation, should apologise to my right hon. Friend for failing to spot a weakness in it. However, having taken out of the security industry crooks, vagabonds and other people with outrageous ambitions in their field, has not the SIA improved the security of places of work, including Government institutions?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Before the SIA, the security industry in this country was unregulated. Although many in the industry carried out good work, there was certainly an opportunity for those who were not interested in either the security of the people and places they guarded or the employment of their staff to get away with it. That is no longer the case thanks to the work of my hon. Friend and others who took through the legislation.

Were the workers in question in possession of national insurance numbers, and should not their legal status have been verified before they were issued with such numbers? Does the Home Secretary share my curiosity that, since 2004, her Department has issued work permits for 270,000 non-EU nationals, whereas in the same period 896,000 national insurance numbers have been issued for non-EU nationals?

This is another area where sharing intelligence across government—in this case between the Border and Immigration Agency and the Department for Work and Pensions—will be important for doing what the hon. Gentleman and I have as a shared objective: making sure that those people who are here and who are working have a right to be here and a right to work. Perhaps he will therefore also support our plans for ID cards for foreign nationals.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on resisting the naive siren calls of Opposition Members who seem to think that the records of 250,000 licence holders working in 2,000 companies can be checked overnight. That is not possible. Will she assure me that she will continue to ensure that she takes enough time to act to address the issues her Department faces and to publish accurate information—to make speed and not make haste?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. Although I have consistently pushed for work to analyse those non-EU residents who have applied for SIA licences and consistently pushed to speed up the work to find out which of them had the right to work, it has been fundamentally important to me that that work is done with accuracy and that I am able to report it fully when I am confident about its accuracy.

Since the Home Secretary reminded all public sector employers of their duties under the legislation, how many illegal immigrants have been found to be working in the public sector, and what action is she proposing to take about that?

Never mind whether it is the public or the private sector, there is rightly continued enforcement activity, including, for example, the 3,700 successful Border and Immigration Agency enforcement operations against illegal workers last year. All that work would have been decimated by the Conservative party’s proposals in its manifesto at the last election to halve the money made available to the agency. It is a bit rich for Conservative Members to demand enforcement activity when they would have halved the agency’s ability to carry it out.