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Security Industry Authority

Volume 696: debated on Tuesday 13 November 2007

My Lords, I rise to repeat the Statement made earlier in the other place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

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

“The SIA 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 for the private security industry.

“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 honourable friend the Minister of State for Immigration stated on 11 September 2006, in response to a question from the honourable Member for Monmouth:

“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, Commons, 11/9/06; col. 2234W.]

That is a matter of record in this House.

“While under no obligation, the SIA has the discretion to seek information that applicants have the right to work in the United Kingdom. As a responsible organisation, the SIA decided in April 2005 to initiate a limited right-to-work check on 10 per cent of non-EEA 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 these 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 United Kingdom. Of these, 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, such as the Prime Minister's, would be taken for any repair work. Those identified at this 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 Border and Immigration Agency and the Security Industry Authority 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 the right to work than the earlier work had suggested. Ministers were informed of this. 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, since 2 July 2007, of the 32,500 licence decisions made, 740 were refused because the SIA was not satisfied that the applicant had a right to work in the United Kingdom. I have been advised by the BIA that all these 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.

“While action could be and was immediately taken in relation to new applicants, it remained unclear how many people who had been granted licences prior to 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 United Kingdom to consider what remedial action should be taken.

“On 9 August, I set out my approach to the advice that I had received. My approach was that the responsible thing to do was to establish the full nature and scale of the problem and 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 that 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 I asked for this 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 United Kingdom. I will place copies of these two letters in the Library of the House.

“I requested an update by 2 pm on the following day, and received a further update from officials on 10 August. In that update, officials believed 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 this process should take so long, and I also asked my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for crime reduction to chair a task force to resolve, and if possible increase, the 4,000 monthly figure. The task force met on 8 October. As a result of this, the current estimate is that these checks will now be completed in December—much more quickly than originally planned—and I will report again to Parliament when this work is complete.

“Preliminary work by the BIA has categorised the 6,000 cases checked so far into three groups. 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 believe this is a very 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 United Kingdom. Employers are expected to assure themselves that their employees have permission to work in the United Kingdom. This is what the law requires of them.

“We nevertheless have 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 BIA work together to address it”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating this Statement. It cannot be entirely comfortable for him to have to come to the aid of the Home Secretary who appears to have had sole responsibility for this débâcle and how it was handled. Therefore, I accept that it is a tough call for him to have to answer questions on what is effectively a personal statement.

The opening remark on the Home Office website is;

“We’re the government department responsible for immigration and nationality. It’s our job to regulate entry to, and settlement in, the UK”.

So is it not something of a Feydeau farce that this department in particular should find itself involved in having “dodgy-documented” immigrants working for it and that its agency should have licensed thousands of illegal immigrants? The Home Secretary has tried to make the best of this, but we are left with questions on how this has happened and why it has taken so long for the matter to come to the attention of Parliament. It looks as if it is four months since the situation was first discovered, but I shall return to that.

In her Statement, the Home Secretary said that on receipt of advice there was concern about the number of people licensed by the Security Industry Authority. She asked for preliminary advice to be available to her by 20 August. Can the Minister say why it took from August to November for this matter to reach the light of day and why it appears to have taken press inquiries to ensure that it did? Was this time spent trying to spin the right story or to prevent those whose entitlement to work was under question becoming aware that they had been rumbled and were therefore likely, presumably, to have to leave this country? While it is clearly the responsibility of a security company hiring staff to check any credentials of any of its workers, what training is given on document verification by those involved in employing such staff? Are they, for example, taught to recognise forged passports?

The Home Secretary said that 11 illegal workers worked in security jobs at the Metropolitan Police and that an illegal worker guarded the site where the Prime Minister’s modified car—perhaps we may have a chance to know what a modified car is—went for repairs. Since it is the responsibility of the employer to ensure that its workforce is legal, what extra provisions are in place to ensure that in these sensitive areas credentials are properly checked? Does the Minister have any idea of the number of people checked by the Security Industry Authority as a result of its limited right-to-work check who had been employed before the agency was set up in 2003 and how many were subsequent? To date, how many illegal workers has it found?

A Home Office spokeswoman is reported to have said that the Security Industry Authority took immediate action once it became aware that some licence holders had been illegally employed. However, it has been suggested that discussions between the Home Office and the SIA about right-to-work checks on non-EU citizens took place as early as July 2006, well over a year ago, and over a year before the date that we have been given, of August 2007. Can the Minister give us a firm date as to when the Home Office actually became aware of this problem?

The security industry is becoming one of the most overloaded areas. That is evident from the tens of thousands of licences which have been granted. It is therefore obvious that it will require staff to man sensitive and vulnerable sites, events, buildings and people. It is essential that the Security Industry Authority can be relied on not to license illegal staff, and that employers, including those working under the auspices of the Home Office, should be extra vigilant.

This Statement from the Home Secretary just throws sand in the eyes. Perhaps the Minister might like to resolve all the problems by simply apologising on her behalf to the House for the mess that has been made.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and I am sorry that he has had to do so. One of the things that will be made more difficult for these Benches in the future is the issue of trust. The Minister will know that we are at a particularly sensitive point, as far as trust goes, with the Counter-Terrorism Bill. We have to take on trust much of the evidence that we are told about, and we have to take on trust the intelligence issues. If we have the Home Secretary herself knowing about a tranche of information and not divulging it to the House until now as a result of leaks, that trust is very hard to restore.

The fact is that we were in this Chamber from the beginning of October until November to discuss immigration issues time and again when considering the UK Borders Bill. My noble friends Lord Avebury and Lord Roberts stood here and talked at length with Home Office Ministers. They discussed many of the issues being touched on today, such as illegal workers. There was ample opportunity at that time to make some sort of statement. Further, there was an opportunity during the spillover period to make a Written Statement, but none was made. It is almost unbelievable that we got through the final stages of the UK Borders Bill without any mention of this issue. So, besides the actual subject under discussion, I am particularly sorry about it because of the issue of trust.

I turn to the scale of the problem. Home Office figures estimate that there are between 310,000 and 570,000 illegal workers in this country. Although we are talking about the security industry, we could, if the issue is illegal workers, just as well be considering the catering sector. But if we are talking about the security of the public—as the Minister said, the Statement talks about protecting the public—that, in a sense, is another issue. I do not think there was any suggestion in the Statement that any of these illegal economic migrants are terrorists, but there is something of a blurring of the lines. The Statement speaks in the same breath of illegal economic migrants and of protecting the public. I ask the Minister whether catering staff, for example, could not be just as much of a threat to security if they wanted simply by poisoning people?

Obviously there is a failure within the Security Industry Authority, but there is also a failure in government contracts. Surely contracts should specify that certain checks have been made before the authority goes on to employ other people. Who specifies what in these contracts, and who is now checking them? As I say, this is illustrative of the principles behind the matter.

When the Liberal Democrats called at their party conference for honesty about the scale of the problem of economic migrants who were already here illegally and what the Government were going to do about it, they were ridiculed by both the other parties for raising the question. We can see now that it is a real question which needs to be addressed.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, raised a number of points and alluded to my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. I should like to begin by saying that I speak as I see. I joined the Home Office at the end of June. It has, like other large organisations I have gone to, some extremely good people, some average people and a few poor people. But on the whole I was very impressed by what I found there. People constantly say to me, “My goodness, you are in the Home Office; that must be a bit of a nightmare”. It is not a nightmare; they are good people there. There are people who work extremely hard and do very good jobs and I have been very impressed by a number of them. As always, you get the best out of an organisation through good leadership. I have never had a problem with leadership and I think that the Home Secretary has done very well in leading the Home Office. I say that as a starter.

As for what has been achieved, one good message is that before we set up the SIA, there was no regulation of the industry at all. The SIA was then established and it quite correctly recognised that there might be an issue here. It decided, “Let us start looking. Let us do a little trawl into a percentage of the those who are working to see if there is a problem”. It started the first review, and although the technology was admittedly not brilliant, it threw up a very small number. I cannot remember the exact percentage—I can write to the noble Baroness with it if she wishes—but it was something like 0.3 per cent. It was a tiny number and seemed to be no problem at all. Then, in about June this year, technology was introduced that allowed the SIA and the BIA to talk to each other more easily. They carried out another review of 10 per cent of the workers and it became clear that there was a problem.

It is the responsibility of the employing firms to ensure that they do not employ illegals, but the SIA rightly saw this as an important issue and brought it fully to the attention of the Home Office. As I understand it, the Home Office had been aware that these reviews were being carried out, and the results were brought to its attention. When I became aware of the issue in July, by which time I was at the Home Office, it was firmly seen as an issue. Indeed, I asked for a meeting with colleagues and we looked at the matter in great detail. Although it was not my area, I was concerned about the counterterrorist aspect of it. But it was looked at much more broadly than that. There was a tiny counterterrorist dimension which has been dealt with separately. I shall not go into it on the Floor of the House.

In July we were aware that there was an issue, and it was brought to the attention of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. She has made it clear that she felt that it would be responsible 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. The exact detail was not at all clear and a lot of work still needed to be refined, and that was the basis on which she moved forward. I think that it is good news that we had the reviews, spotted a problem, identified it and now are taking action to resolve it.

As the noble Baroness mentioned in relation to the borders Bill, the whole area of immigration is very complex. Things have undoubtedly gone wrong in the past, but we are very firmly getting to grips with it. I am very impressed by some of the work being done to achieve that.

As for whether we should set specific standards for the work of the various companies, there is very clear guidance on what they should do and on which documents are acceptable and which are not. They are not experts in looking at passports in the same way as the BIA, but they have very clear guidance on the Home Office website and we can give them more detailed instructions about that. I have to say, en passant, that this will be a lot easier when passports have double biometrics and those sorts of things. Then we will have a clearer view of exactly who these people are.

I hope that has answered the questions from both noble Baronesses. If I have missed anything I will be happy to talk separately to them on those issues.

My Lords, the Statement says that in April 2007 the Border and Immigration Agency identified the breach of security—and it was a severe breach if one of these people had access to the Prime Minister’s car. Later in the Statement we heard that Ministers were informed in June. The Secretary of State says that the reason she decided on 9 August that the lines to take were not good enough for the press office or Ministers to explain the situation was that the analysis of the issue had not been completed. If one is very generous and allows that the analysis required sufficient in-depth thinking, would it not have been right, if there had been a breach of security, for that to have been brought to the House for public accountability from April onwards? My noble friend Lady Miller has touched on that.

We see in the memo from Mr Mark Williams, exposed in the Daily Mail, that where the text says the lines were not good enough for the press office or Ministers to use, the next sentence says that,

“the fact we are improving the system and the fact that prior to the SIA there was no system at all do not come across strongly enough”.

Does that not suggest that it was not analysis that was causing the delay, but spin?

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises a number of questions. The Metropolitan Police Service has looked at the security breach in detail and has assured us that there was absolutely no risk to national security or to the Prime Minister himself. It has also taken action regarding how it will check in future who is employed by the various firms that work for it.

With regard to the e-mails, I will not comment at all on leaked documents. We hope that we will find out who did it. There is an element of disloyalty if it was someone in the organisation. I think that loyalty is extremely important for the nation, for government and, actually, for all of us in any organisation. I was personally rather shocked to find that things like that were in the public domain. I will not comment on the detail of what was in them.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the chairman and chief executive of an insurance broking organisation. We provide specialist insurance for the security industry. One of the requirements in our scheme is that there is adequate vetting of employees—in fact, if there is insufficient vetting, that might invalidate the insurance policy—so I was a little disturbed by what the Minister has said today. I emphasise the fact that adequate instructions and guidance are given to the employers because if there is not adequate vetting there could be problems with the provision of insurance cover.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his intervention. He is absolutely right. There is clear guidance now, and I believe the correct sort of vetting is undertaken. That is important for security firms, because back in 2003 the position was that there was a lot of uncertainty about their reliability and whether they could be used for certain jobs within government. Now that the SIA exists we have tightened up these loopholes. Things were going wrong in the past but we have sorted that out. That is good for the industry and for the nation.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that he has not adequately answered the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, concerning trust? Is not the general feeling of the public and those who are reasonably well informed, on reading of these matters, that the Home Secretary was—what shall we say?—waiting for a good day on which to bury bad news? Is that not the truth of the matter?

Beyond that, looking to the substance of the issue, will the Minister say how far must, how far should and how far may an employer go in asking a prospective employee whether he or she has the right to work in this country? Is the employer able to rely simply on the employee producing what they claim is a national insurance number? If the applicant is clearly of an ethnic minority, or has a poor command of English, is the employer entitled to question him or her more closely than they might someone who appears to be native British? If the employer has several applicants for a post, are they entitled or able to prefer the one who is obviously of British nationality, rather than those about whom they should inquire more deeply?

My Lords, as I mentioned, the employers have clear guidance on exactly what checks they would have to carry out. I could write to the noble Lord with the exact details. I do not know every detail of the checks, but clear guidance for them exists. I found his question about nationality and what people look like quite bizarre. It is rather like the cricket test, and I do not accept them as issues. There is no doubt that ID cards will make the situation an awful lot easer.

On the noble Lord’s question about my right honourable friend Jacqui Smith, I speak as I have found. Since I have been working in the Home Office, from the end of June, I have been extremely impressed by her leadership; I have been extremely impressed by her probity; and, as she said, this was a complicated issue that was difficult to bottom-out. She made it clear in the Statement that the basis on which she acted was that it was only responsible to ensure that she was fully aware of the scale of the problem and took action to deal with it, rather than just put incomplete and potentially misleading information in the public domain. My experience from time in the MoD and elsewhere is that there are often many things which it would be unhelpful immediately to throw into the public domain. One has to be very careful with some things and make sure that one has bottomed them out. Sometimes it affects people who might leave jobs or move or involves the difficulty of catching them. We need to be very careful with such matters.

My Lords, I focus my question on the possibility that there are people working inside the Government who are not entitled to be working in Britain. I shall focus on the Home Office and in particular on the Identity and Passport Service, the Immigration and Nationality Directorate and the Border and Immigration Agency. The Minister was kind enough to give me two Written Answers, the first of which was on 3 August, in which he told me:

“National security vetting is carried out to the appropriate level for all persons working for the Identity and Passport Service and the Border and Immigration Agency”.—[Official Report, 1/10/07; col. WA161.]

On Tuesday, 7 August, in reply to my Question on how many people employed by those key agencies are non-UK citizens and not citizens of other European Union countries, he was able to give a Written Answer in respect of the Identity and Passport Service. However, he said:

“The Border and Immigration Agency does not hold this information centrally and to provide this information would be at disproportionate cost”.—[Official Report, 1/10/07; col. WA160.]

Does that not terrify one into asking whether there is any proper control by the Home Office of the people whom it employs in the agencies which are responsible for protecting this country?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, quoted a couple of my responses. The response of 7 August about non-UK or EEA personnel does not mean that people were not checked when they joined. The difficulty concerns going through and identifying all of them and being able to say with absolute assurance, “Yes, this is the position on them all”. That is partly to do with databases and IT and things like that. We check to ensure that people whom we employ fit in with all the criteria expected. It is wrong to think that we would employ people who do not do that, but that does not mean that there are not sometimes mistakes. Indeed, there have been a couple of mistakes, but that is a part of life. There are errors sometimes, but we do carry out the necessary checks.

My Lords, I have two questions. First, the Minister said that there was advice to employers on these checks. Is that advice used inside government as well as there being advice from government to employers? Secondly, twice in answers to questions today the Minister has mentioned ID cards. As he is obviously a security expert, is it not true that Mohammed Atta, who flew one of the planes into the twin towers on 11 September 2001, had perfectly good identity cards and absolutely everything was known about him? To bring up ID cards on this issue, when we know that we shall have more and more discussions on them, is probably a red herring.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness. In answer to the first part of her question, yes, we use exactly the same procedures as we have on our website for companies in employing personnel.

I thank the noble Baroness for saying that I am obviously a security expert; that is very generous of her. To go back to where I started, this is a very complicated area and it was absolutely appropriate that we looked in detail at what needed to be done. That is why there has been time to respond and get an answer.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the problems encountered with IT. Sadly we all know of a number of major organisations set up by the Government that have proved to be extremely fallible. I am thinking, for example, of the agency for chasing fathers who do not pay. Whatever is now being done, if we are still going to rely on IT and if we are going to have a number of people who are not very good at using it, misusing it, are we satisfied that we can cure this problem? I am very concerned about the quality of IT and the repercussions that there will be if it is simply allowed to go on making mistakes.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that question. She is absolutely right on IT systems, which worried me in my last incarnation for some 10 to 12 years. We do not have a good record and, I have to say, neither do private companies in this regard, but we live in a world where we have to get these things right. A lot of it is not just to do with the technology but with changing how we operate and how someone constructs their organisation. Those things are terribly difficult and I would not want to underestimate that. For example, although it is not my specific area, I am looking into the EU borders area in great detail, and the Home Office is making sure that it focuses on it—because these things can easily go wrong. If we do not focus on them, we have no chance in this global world of ours of moving on and countering these various threats.

I did not answer the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain. I am terribly sorry; I went away with the fairies or something. The noble Baroness made a valid point about ID cards. She is absolutely right that people can create exact copies of them. However, it is rather like someone robbing one’s house. One may have a burglar alarm, bars and all these things, but if someone focuses totally on robbing one’s house, it is very difficult to stop them getting in. I am afraid that the same is true of ID cards. You need a real specialist to spot a fake one that someone has put a huge effort into creating. There may be many other things against ID cards but generally, in purely counterterrorist terms, I have no doubt whatever that they will make the situation easier. They will not resolve the problem—nothing on its own will resolve the problem—but they will make the situation easier.