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Licensing of Master Locksmiths

Volume 701: debated on Wednesday 22 September 2021

I encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking. That is in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I ask those leaving the debate to leave quietly. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the licensing of master locksmiths.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I am pleased to see the Minister for Security in his place to respond. I will cover the following points: the role of the locksmith, the current situation and its impact, and the dangers of maintaining the status quo. I will suggest a better alternative.

To start with the role of the locksmith, locksmiths practise one of our most ancient trades, with a history spanning hundreds of years. The Master Locksmiths Association is in my Rugby constituency. On a recent visit there, I was able to see a whole room—almost a mini museum—devoted to the profession. I saw examples of locks dating back to ancient Egypt. There were locks from different eras and I was able to understand the evolution of locks, lock-making and locksmiths’ tools over the centuries.

The Master Locksmiths Association, the largest trade association for locksmiths, is a not-for-profit organisation, established to promote skills and ethics within the industry. It is recognised as the authoritative body for locksmithing by the police, the Home Office, the British Standards Institution and the Building Research Establishment, among others. I am pleased to support the association today, as it seeks regulation of its industry and, importantly, a harder line on the small number of locksmiths who take advantage of consumers.

I contend that the spiralling number of rogue tradespeople operating across the country is putting the safety of members of the public—our constituents—at risk.

Does my hon. Friend agree that often a rogue locksmith will get a job by submitting a very low estimate? When the job is under way, they will claim that they have found some extra work that needs doing, and they put the price up. The poor customer often gets a shoddy job at a high price.

My right hon. Friend draws attention to an important point. Very often the work done by a rogue locksmith is shoddy and needs to be corrected by a member of the Master Locksmiths Association. I will deal with that in my remarks.

For as long as people have held personal property there has been a risk that it would be stolen. We therefore rely heavily on locksmiths for the security of our home and, most importantly, our families who live in our home. It will come as a surprise to many Members, given that importance, that there is no regulatory regime for locksmiths in the UK. Absolutely anyone can advertise, trade, buy locksmiths’ tools and call themselves a locksmith, without training, going through any vetting process or providing proof that they are qualified.

There are consequences for householders, to which my right hon. Friend has just drawn attention. Employing a locksmith is often a distress purchase. It is a decision made to employ somebody in the heat of the moment. The person employed will often be somebody who has been found through a quick online Google search. In those circumstances, a private individual could be placing their security with someone who may not only be incompetent but will not have had to pass any criminal record checks.

The current framework for the private security industry is set out in the Private Security Industry Act 2001. Although locksmiths were excluded from that legislation at the time, the then Government noted that it could be amended to include locksmiths at a later date, although that is yet to happen. During the passage of that legislation in 2001, the then Under-Secretary at the Home Office, Lord Bassam of Brighton, stated that locksmiths would not be included in the legislation for a number of reasons, one of which was that there was

“no evident high level of criminality”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 30 January 2001; Vol. 621, c. 596.]

I am afraid that is no longer the case, and I will refer to some recent research in a moment.

There is currently a voluntary scheme provided by the Master Locksmiths Association, but there is absolutely no obligation on locksmiths to register with it. The MLA’s approved licensing scheme means that only a proportion of locksmiths are vetted and regularly inspected and have passed an exam to prove their competence.

I have had discussions with the MLA about how we might improve that. We propose an industry-led scheme, similar to the Gas Safe Register for gas plumbers, which is operated by a division of Capita plc. Such a register would ensure that all locksmiths are vetted, inspected and competent to trade, in the same way as gas fitters are registered under the Gas Safe Register, which is the only official gas registration body of gas businesses and engineers in the UK. By law, all businesses involved in the gas sector must be on the Gas Safe Register. A gas engineer can be aligned to a registered business and be issued a licence to undertake work only if they hold a valid and current qualification. The evidence of competence relates to gas safety and is obtained by every engineer through a recognised route of training. We envisage a similar model to the Gas Safe Register for locksmiths, to regulate their industry. Significantly, there is no cost to the Government and the taxpayer from the Gas Safe Register. We envisage the same route for locksmiths.

Let me say in support of the need for regulation that the Master Locksmiths Association hears on a near daily basis from consumers across the country who have unknowingly employed an unaccredited locksmith. Some may have been severely overcharged, in the way that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) described. Some may have received a very poor standard of work, often requiring remedial work from an MLA member. In the most extreme cases, rogue locksmiths retain keys to locks they have installed and either use them or pass them on to others to commit burglaries at a later date.

The MLA recently published research based on feedback from more than 100 of its members from across England, which shows a soaring number of cases of householders falling victim to a bogus locksmith. Over the past year, two thirds of the MLA’s largest members have been called to such a job. Collectively, they have attended more than 300 botched jobs involving a rogue locksmith, and 65% of respondents said that rogues are overcharging customers by £200 or more.

The issue has received widespread interest in the national media. It featured recently as the lead story on BBC 1’s “Rip Off Britain”, which presented stories of people falling victim to bogus locksmiths. All of that emphasises the need for regulation to protect the public and our constituents.

The Neighbourhood Watch network recently surveyed its members and found that 76% of respondents were unaware that locksmiths are not regulated. On being told that the industry is not regulated, 27% described themselves as very shocked and considered that the matter needed urgent attention; 46% said it made them think twice about who they would call if they had an issue with their locks; and 15% said it would make them feel very uncomfortable if they had to call out a locksmith. Eighty per cent. of respondents to that survey believe that locksmiths should be regulated in the same way as gas installers.

This is a problem not just for the UK. Google recently banned all ads for locksmiths from appearing in search results in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden. Google says that

“most if not all ads appearing in search results are from unreliable or even crooked locksmiths who take advantage of those in need—someone who is locked out of the house at night, for example—to charge exorbitant prices for shoddy workmanship.”

That is the nature of the concern, and it is a very poor situation for consumers and our constituents.

I have mentioned that locksmiths are often employed in emergency circumstances. The customer will often be under distress and liable to unwittingly employ a locksmith who is in a position to overcharge and take advantage in the way that my right hon. Friend has drawn attention to. It is not hard to imagine the scene that many people face—for example, when their car has been broken into, perhaps late at night. They need to get home, but the lock on the car has been tampered with. The majority will google “locksmith” on their phones and contact the first person who comes up on an online search, not realising that some, or perhaps many, of the people on the list would not meet the standards set by the Master Locksmiths Association. It is not unreasonable for us all to expect a reputable locksmith to appear in such searches, but that is not the case.

My right hon. Friend said that rogue locksmiths often carry out work to a poor standard, which can have serious consequences—for example, in the case of a house fire. If a single-exit dwelling has poorly fitted locks that cannot be opened easily from the inside of the house without a key, it could have fatal consequences.

If we leave things as they are and simply carry on maintaining the status quo without any licensing scheme, there is a real risk that we allow rogue locksmiths to continue to proliferate. We know that the situation is increasingly hard for consumers, particularly where they find the locksmith through online advertising, which often gives false confidence to a customer. Without a licensing system, online advertisers are unable to determine whether a locksmith seeking to advertise on their site or platform is a reputable trader.

As with the Gas Safe Register, an effective scheme in the UK would make it illegal to trade as an unlicensed locksmith and illegal to employ the services of an unlicensed locksmith. As I have mentioned, applicants would need to be vetted to obtain a licence. They would need to establish proof of competence and be subject to a regular inspection regime on the work they carry out. With that security, consumers would be able to access a public register and have confidence that the locksmith they are employing will perform the job to a high standard and at a reasonable cost.

There is a precedent nearby. Ireland made it a requirement for all locksmiths to be registered with the Private Security Authority as long ago as February 2017. It is now an offence to operate as an unlicensed locksmith and to employ an unlicensed locksmith. Unlicensed locksmiths, and those employing them, face up to 12 months in prison and a fine of up to €4,000. In serious cases, prison sentences can run for up to five years. In the United States of America, 15 states require locksmiths to be licensed, and a variety of local schemes are in place, with requirements ranging from simple registration with a local authority to needing training, background checks and proof of insurance.

The Minister will know that I submitted a question a little while ago calling for regulation of the industry, and he will appreciate that this debate highlights why regulation is needed. I very much hope that he or his colleagues will be able to meet the Master Locksmiths Association to consider the matter further. I urge the Government to consider amending the Private Security Industry Act 2001 or introducing new legislation to protect our constituents and consumers by requiring all locksmiths to be licensed.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Bardell. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby—and Bulkington—(Mark Pawsey) on securing this debate. I thank him for his thoughtful contribution. He is a well-known, assiduous champion for his constituents and for organisations in his constituency, and I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss these important matters.

I recognise the important service that the locksmith industry provides—it is often a distress purchase in difficult circumstances, as my hon. Friend said. There is clearly a need for such services to be delivered to a high standard for the purposes of safety, security and peace of mind. I also recognise the risk posed when the standards for delivery of these services are left unchecked. It is important that the public can access quality workmanship by trained and qualified professionals.

The Government are focused on driving down crime in all its guises, including neighbourhood crimes such as burglary. We are taking concerted action to make our streets, neighbourhoods and communities safer, including by backing the police with more officers, powers and resources.

Locksmiths were excluded from the Private Security Industry Act 2001 as there was no evident high level of criminality in that sector, and there were a significant number of small businesses in the sector. The Government were conscious of how a regulatory burden may place a barrier in the way of expanding and developing those small businesses. Those points remain relevant to the locksmith industry today.

I hear what my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) says about increasing levels of criminality since the passage of the 2001 Act, but much of the argument focuses on poor workmanship. As my right hon. Friend touched on in his intervention, rogue locksmiths overcharge for substandard services. The Government have not seen evidence of unlicensed locksmiths contributing to the incidence of neighbourhood crime, such as burglary.

It is important that the Government do not increase regulation and the burden on businesses unless there is an absolutely compelling case. In this case, the Master Locksmiths Association already has a robust accreditation scheme in place to ensure that approved locksmiths are appropriately vetted, inspected and qualified. The scheme is approved by the police crime prevention initiative, Secured by Design, which sets the industry gold standard for security products and interventions to design out crime.

Consumers have the choice in who they seek to undertake locksmith work. We encourage them to use the information available to them, including that which can be found on the Master Locksmiths Association website, to ensure they receive quality work at fair rates. I would encourage members of the public to utilise the association’s advice, and locksmiths to make use of the scheme, too.

There is a robust consumer protection framework in place that all traders, including locksmiths, must comply with. Consumers are protected from being misled about the products or services they purchase by the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. The regulations also outlaw behaviour that falls short of the requirements of professional due diligence, carrying criminal penalties enforced by local authority trading standards officers.

The Government recognise the terrible impact that acquisitive crime can have on individuals, families, businesses and the wider community. That includes, especially, the invasive nature of burglary, the cost and disruption when vehicles and other tools of the trade that people rely on to earn a living are stolen, and the loss of cherished items that simply cannot be replaced. Those crimes should of course be reported to the police so that they can be investigated appropriately. As Members know, we are boosting the police workforce through the uplift campaign, which has so far delivered almost half of the 20,000 additional officers promised by 2023. We are making progress, but we will never be complacent when it comes to keeping the public safe.

Over the summer, the Government published the beating crime plan, which sets out our blueprint for driving down crime. We are providing £45 million through rounds 1 and 2 of the safer streets fund to support areas across England and Wales that are disproportionately affected by crimes such as burglary and theft to invest in proven situational, physical crime prevention measures, such as street lighting and home security. Round 1 supported 52 projects across 35 police and crime commissioner areas in the 2020-21 financial year. Round 2 is being delivered in the following financial year, supporting a further 50 projects across 39 PCC areas. A further £25 million for round 3 of the fund will be targeted at improving the safety of public spaces, with a primary focus on the safety of women and girls. That brings the total investment in the safer streets fund to £70 million.

The beating crime plan also sets out wider action that the Government are taking to improve home security, which includes embedding security standards and crime prevention principles within the national model design code and developing minimum standards as part of the review of a housing health and safety rating system, to ensure that domestic security is not just a privilege for some.

We are considering how we can go further in using the decent homes standard to keep social housing residents secure and help tackle antisocial behaviour. We are consulting on proposals to extend the security requirement in part Q of the building regulations to existing homes too. The intention of the proposed changes is to help ensure that refurbished properties are fitted only with products, such as doors and windows, that meet security standards. As my hon. Friend will know, it is currently applicable only to new homes.

The Government have introduced a whole range of measures to improve security and make people feel safer in their homes, and those are of course very welcome. However, one key point is that the regulation of locksmiths was last looked at 20 years ago. Would the Minister undertake to accept a representation from the Master Locksmiths Association setting out how things have changed in those intervening years, and to give further thought to how we might deal with the issue of rogue locksmiths?

Of course, we are always open to representations and want to hear from trusted voices in the industry. I would encourage the association to continue engaging with officials at the Home Office.

I am coming towards the end of my remarks, so let me set out our overall position. Any broadening of the remit of the Security Industry Authority would require careful consideration of how we balance public protection against the ability of the sector to operate effectively before we embarked on what would obviously be a required legislative process. As yet, we do not judge that there has been a sufficient business case to justify the licensing of locksmiths under the Private Security Industry Act 2001.

As my hon. Friend knows, there is already a robust certification scheme in place from the Master Locksmiths Association. That scheme, which is approved by the police crime prevention initiative, Secured by Design, ensures that approved locksmiths are appropriately inspected and qualified to deliver the services required by customers—as he rightly says, sometimes in very difficult circumstances. The association also provides guidance and advice to consumers on pricing, products and equipment, hiring locksmiths and how to spot scammers.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Master Locksmiths Association for its efforts to ensure that the public are further protected against scammers and rogue traders via its approval scheme. As I said, I would encourage members of the public to utilise the association’s advice, and I would also encourage locksmiths to use the scheme.

Let me end by expressing my thanks once again to my hon. Friend for securing this important debate and for the thoughtful contribution that he made. The fight against crime is a key priority for the Government, and I can assure hon. Members on both sides that we will continue doing everything in our power to make our villages, towns and cities safer.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.