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Security Industry Authority

Volume 697: debated on Thursday 13 December 2007

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made in another place earlier this afternoon by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary.

“Following my Statement of 13 November, I would like to update the House on the actions that we are taking to address Security Industry Authority licensing checks and the issue of entitlement to work in the United Kingdom.

“An SIA licence demonstrates that the holder has undergone training and that identity and criminality checks have been completed. An SIA licence has never constituted evidence of entitlement to work in this country and it is the responsibility of employers to ensure that the people whom they employ are entitled to work.

“Before my previous Statement, steps were already being taken to prevent illegal working in the security industry. From 2 July 2007, the SIA introduced immigration status checks with the Border and Immigration Agency on all non-EEA applicants as part of the security industry licensing process. This is not a substitute for employers meeting their clear obligations, but the SIA checks provide a double lock on illegal working in this area.

“Alongside these immigration status checks, my department took steps to determine how many people who were granted licences prior to 2 July did not have the right to work. Plans were put in place for the BIA to check all the 39,885 non-EEA nationals licensed by the SIA before 2 July. Manual checks had started at the rate of 1,000 cases per week.

“I wanted the process to be speeded up without compromising accuracy. I therefore ordered automatic matching between the SIA list of non-EEA nationals and databases operated by the BIA and UKvisas. The BIA and the SIA have now completed these checks on the 39,885 non-EEA nationals licensed by the SIA before 2 July. On the basis of these checks, I am advised that the BIA is fully satisfied that 28,737 have the right to work in this country. It believes that 6,653 do not have the right to work in this country. In 4,447 other cases, the BIA is not satisfied that the individual has proved the right to work. The balance of 48 represents duplicate records.

“The following steps are being taken to revoke the licences of those found not to be entitled to work in this country. The SIA has written to all companies on its database to remind them of the need to check regularly on the SIA’s website the registers of licence holders and of revoked licences, to ensure that all their staff have the right to work. The registers are currently receiving over 1,000 hits a day.

“Apart from a small number of cases where the SIA licence is close to expiry, the SIA has written to all those individuals—more than 10,500—where checks indicate no right to work or where the BIA is not satisfied that the individual has the right to work. These letters advise the licence holder that the SIA is minded to revoke their licence. The SIA gives the recipients 21 days in which to respond with further information and it expects that many will do so. If evidence is not forthcoming, the SIA will move for revocation. The law then allows the individual a further 21 days in which to appeal to the magistrates’ or sheriff courts.

“Once the SIA has completed this process, it will be in a position to determine the number of individuals not entitled to work but who obtained SIA licences prior to the new double-lock checking regime now in place. The SIA expects that a significant proportion may yet establish that they have a right to work in this country. I am advised that, of the new applications for licences initially considered for refusal by the SIA on the basis of checks with the BIA following 2 July, over 30 per cent have since shown that they have the right to work. The SIA will publish the final numbers of the pre-2 July group on its website when they are complete.

“I repeat that it is important that all employers fulfil their obligations by carrying out all the proper checks before taking anyone on. We are also taking further steps to protect the public from those individuals who we suspect have breached our immigration laws by working here illegally. First, all the cases where minded-to-revoke action is now being taken against individuals have been passed to BIA enforcement intelligence units to be assessed for further action. The BIA is screening these individuals against the police national computer and other databases so that we can target any individuals who may pose a risk to the public.

“Secondly, these cases are being analysed for evidence of employers who appear to have a track record of employing people who do not have a right to work. BIA tells me that a third of its illegal-working operation is currently being deployed on this employment sector. Visits to specific individuals and employers have already begun and swift action has been taken in those cases that merit it. A series of targeted enforcement operations will take place in the coming months, with a view to prosecuting employers and removing or prosecuting individuals in the worst cases.

“Thirdly, in line with our enforcement strategy, we will continue to target illegal working on the basis of the risk of harm to the public. New powers that come into force in February mean that we can more easily fine employers who break the rules. Now that we have identified a significant problem in the security industry, we will maintain a focus on its employers and staff.

“We are taking other steps to further guard against illegal working in the security industry. First, the BIA has passed to the SIA the right-to-work expiry dates of all existing licence holders and recent new applicants. The SIA has agreed that in future it will send minded-to-revoke letters to all these licence holders shortly before their right to work status expires. Secondly, I have asked the BIA to work with the SIA to provide specialist advice to enhance its ability to spot fraudulent documentation. Thirdly, at present, the SIA’s licence application form does not specifically ask applicants to state that they have the right to work in the United Kingdom. I have therefore asked the SIA to review the application form to ensure that it contains all the information that both the SIA and the BIA may need with a view to making changes as soon as possible. Fourthly, in January, the SIA will run a joint seminar with the British Security Industry Association to underline the importance of employers meeting their responsibilities in this area. Fifthly, the task force that I set up to resolve this issue in September, chaired by my honourable friend the Member for Gedling, will continue to oversee action.

“I believe that the update that I have provided today demonstrates my and the Government’s determination to put in place effective systems and procedures to further protect the public”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Statement. I remind your Lordships that, although the Government knew of the problem of illegal working in the security industry as early as last April, we learnt of it only in November, through a Sunday newspaper. That is over six months later, even though we are talking about the security industry. At that time, it seemed that about 5,000 people might be involved. Now we learn that more than 11,000 may be working in this country illegally in the security industry alone. The Government say that they are applying a double lock, but it seems that a large horse has already bolted. Would it not have been much better to have had competent staff in the stable preventing this breakout from the system?

It would help the House greatly if the Minister could respond to the following questions. How many people are protecting sensitive individuals such as Ministers and police and how many are protecting sensitive sites belonging, for instance, to the critical national infrastructure? The Minister said that the individuals involved had the right of appeal and that the whole process of establishing entitlement to work could take up to 42 days in individual cases. During that time, the individual has the continuing right to work. But where the safety of sensitive people, including government Ministers and installations may be involved, is this provision the right way round? Should there not be at least an ability to suspend pending confirmation?

In another place, the Home Secretary said that investigation of a significant number of cases was now in train. How many are likely to result in deportation? Why does the system function so badly? In the Statement, the Minister says that the granting of an SIA licence,

“has never constituted evidence of entitlement to work in this country”.

That is not what the SIA says, nor is it what any employer would reasonably understand from its website. In a document published in 2006 and reflected on the website, the SIA states:

“To obtain an SIA licence it is necessary to pass checks relating to competency and being a fit and proper person for the role”.

It continues:

“The fit and proper person check is made up of the following checks: a right to work in the UK”,

with a lot of other requirements thereafter. To establish the right, the SIA required applicants to submit originals of a wide variety of documents, including passport, driving licence, firearms certificates, photo ID and so forth.

What is the SIA for if it is not going to establish immigration status? Why is it only now that the SIA is going to benefit from close co-operation with the Immigration Service? Would it not have been natural for the SIA to seek this collaboration with the BIA from the outset? Does the Minister not accept that that would have been a competent way of proceeding, especially when the SIA was giving the industry the impression that it was checking immigration status? Presumably a number of the documents presented in applications were also forgeries. How many have been uncovered by the SIA? Is the Minister in a position to say whether there will be any prosecutions?

Finally, will the Minister now tell the House how the SIA proposes to strengthen its procedures? The board members are all appointees of the Home Secretary. Had she been in the House, it would have been helpful to have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Henig, who is chairman of the board. It is a matter of public record that she is paid £64,800 a year for a three-day week. Her duties are therefore not insubstantial in this matter. Will the Minister say when the department is likely to have finished its current investigations, so that it can advise the House of the outcome and reassure us about the confidence and integrity of the system that has been put in place?

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and updating the House on what has happened since the Statement on 13 November.

Two issues on the table continue to cloud the clear thinking in this area. The SIA is licensing individuals but the industry groups employers. Individuals are being licensed, but employers have the legal responsibility for checking. That issue has contributed to the present position. Since the original Act was drawn up in 2001, it has become apparent that the security industry has expanded considerably. The Government’s intention to farm more work out to it in all sorts of areas means that, in the long run, besides the questions raised by the Statement today, we should be looking for the Act to be updated.

I have talked with people from the industry, who describe the Act as a starting point. Perhaps if they were generous they would describe it as the 11-plus compared with university entrance. It may have served a purpose before there was anything else in place, but it needs an overhaul now.

I have some questions for the Minister. He mentioned that cases were being analysed for evidence of employers who appeared to have a track record of employing people who do not have the right to work here. The BIA said that a third of its illegal-working operation is concentrating on that. I wonder how many people constitute a third of that operation. Are we talking about five people, 15 people or 50 people? That will be relevant to how fast the case load can be got through.

Secondly, according to the Security Industry Authority, of the 114 contractors currently licensed there have been four withdrawals of licences, from the employers’ side, I imagine, although it is not clear to me. Perhaps the Minister would explain exactly what happens where an employer is found still to be operating even though it has a large number of individuals whose individual licences have been withdrawn. Lastly, will the Minister tell me the current position of all this in Scotland?

My Lords, thank you for those points. The noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, raised the chronology of how various decisions were made and referred to the timings of when things were known and my right honourable friend the Home Secretary’s response. Effectively the SIA, although it was under no obligation to do so, started checks in 2006 to identify whether any of the people who were being cleared on the basis of their CRB and competence were not entitled to work in the United Kingdom. They did some checks with a small sample and found that there were a number. That made them think that they should check in a little more detail and a larger sample was chosen. In April this year that highlighted that this was a problem.

That shows how important the matter is and what a good thing it was that we established the SIA back in 2003, because there was nothing in existence before that to look at these things. My right honourable friend Liam Byrne became aware of the issue in April this year. The full scale of the problem became apparent in about August, but before that on 2 July, as I said in the Statement, every applicant identified as a non-EEA national by the SIA had their right to work in the UK checked by the BIA. That was done off its own bat before Ministers had looked at this. In August we had a couple of meetings on the issue. The Home Secretary was made aware of the problem and she understandably said that she wanted to know the full scale, the full implications and the actions to be carried out. That she wanted to check the figures was shown clearly by the fact that the numbers have changed regularly, as was pointed out by the noble Baroness. Initially we thought that it might be about 5,000, but now we have bottomed that out and come to the latest figure. That shows that it was essential that she looked at those issues.

A point was raised about the number of people protecting sensitive ministries and so on. All the people who work at the Home Office in this context have SIA checks anyway. There is not an issue. In August the Cabinet Office wrote to all HR directors of various departments to establish the fact that they had to use the directive that points out the baseline personal security standard for all their people. That has been done. We have looked across the board and there are no areas where we are concerned about that risk to government departments, agencies, the military, the police and so on.

Since the 2 July cases we have passed 338 cases to enforcement teams. We have produced 328 intelligence packages, where they try to identify the full detail. We have made 101 enforcement visits, 44 encounters and so far arrested 15 people, but these are early days and there is a 42-day period for people to respond.

I was asked about what happened with the immediate suspension of a licence. The SIA can suspend a licence immediately if it is reasonably satisfied that there will be a clear threat to public safety. Having looked through the relatively high proportion that we have and the number of successful challenges, we believe that this is not an appropriate course of action at the moment for the ones that we are dealing with.

It was said that the SIA website says that it will conduct right-to-work checks. That is not correct. It says that it may conduct right-to-work checks. As I said before, it was set up on the basis of checking competency and CRB, not that right-to-work check. However, the double lock system now means that that is done and will be covered.

The noble Baroness thought that the SIA had functioned badly. I go back to what I said before, which shows me that we are lucky that we established an SIA, that it was doing its job thinking of other aspects and that it did the right things. It has been brought to our attention and now a raft of measures are being implemented to find out the exact position and to take action to make sure that we get this right. Therefore I do not think that it functioned badly at all. It functioned well and spotted something that was going wrong, bearing in mind that it was established in 2003.

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, mentioned the licence of individuals and employees and rightly raised the fact that Section 8 of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 does not fulfil what is required of it. That has been recognised. Later today in this House, for example, we will be discussing the Immigration (Employment of Adults Subject to Immigration Control) (Maximum Penalty) Order 2007. That is part of a series of measures to replace Section 8 of the Asylum and Immigration Act with something a little more practical that we will be able to use properly to prosecute the firms that the noble Baroness was talking about who are clearly breaking those rules. It has been difficult and clumsy to do it in the past.

The BIA has over 30 enforcement officers across the UK, so one-third of that must be 10. Perhaps I may come back to your Lordships with this in writing, because I am not sure myself, to give a precise figure.

I do not know the position for Scotland and I will come back in writing on that. If I have not answered any questions from the noble Baroness I will be happy to talk afterwards or to come back in writing.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the Opposition in this case and so many others are being wise after the event? Has not the situation that we are now considering moved with extreme swiftness? Have the Government received any earlier representations from the Conservative Opposition in particular, expressing concern about the matter?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his valid point. As I mentioned, the establishment of the SIA was a good thing. As I understand it, although it was long before I came into any political arena, it was opposed strongly by the Conservative Party on the grounds that it was not required. Thank goodness it is there and has bowled these things out. We now have to sort it out, but because the SIA was there we discovered that there was this problem.

My Lords, I declare an interest; my company provides insurance for the security industry and we feel that the screening of staff is very important. I have two questions for the noble Lord. First, what action is recommended to employers to ensure that the documents submitted by the prospective employee are genuine, because I am told that the documents are sometimes forged? Secondly, what action is taken to ensure that employers carry out the checks, and if they do not, are there any penalties?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for those points. We are introducing a new list of documents in the context of the work being carried out in relation to this change to Section 8 of the Asylum and Immigration Act. These have been picked particularly because the way that they lock together gives a clear indication and makes it much easier to ascertain whether prospective employees have a right to work in this country and to spot forgeries. Because we also have the double-lock system, an added security is the fact that the SIA goes to the BIA, which has very expert people who check these documents. We are also giving guidance to the industry to show it what to look for. So there is a double check which will make it much more certain that we get this right.

My Lords, while I have no particular difficulty with the explanation from the government Front Bench, can I explore a wider connection? Is there any possibility of a link between these unfortunate events that are being corrected and the disasters in the sub-prime loans business, in which there seems to have been a parallel failure in the regulatory process? There might conceivably be a link between the two.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his interjection. I have to say that I am not aware of any link, but if I become aware of one, I will make sure that I write to let him know.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. The Government make much of the fact that they put this system in place and that it is working well. However, that does not make it a good system. The difficulty is that the system is faulty, as it stands. It would help the House to hear in due course from the Minister on how the system will be strengthened to function better.

My Lords, the Statement made it quite clear what steps have been taken and what happens now. The double lock makes the system far, far better and it will be very sound indeed. It is unfortunate that all this has happened in the way that it has; it is great that the SIA actually discovered it. Now we will have a good answer with the double-lock system, which will be secure and robust. There are a number of areas which we have to focus on, and we have been made to look at them because they are important in the context of our overall security and managing our borders. They fit together and interlock with a number of other things that are taking place.