Tuesday 14 March witnessed the 2017 edition of the Security Industry Authority’s (SIA) annual Stakeholder Conference, which ran at the Hallam Conference Centre in central London. A reflection of the partnership working theme for the day, the confirmed speakers emanated from academia, the police service and the NHS. Representing the private security industry, Peter Webster aired his views and now shares them with the readers of Risk UK.
The SIA’s Stakeholder Conference allowed me to share my perspectives on licensing and regulation with members of the audience. As regular readers of the Security’s VERTEX Voice section in Risk UK will know, this is a subject close to my heart. On that basis, I thought it would be useful to share with you the crux of my presentation as well as some of the reactions to it.
First of all, let me begin by stating that I fully support regulation. As an industry trusted to keep people and property safe, we want to be regulated and, indeed, I’ve never met anyone who has advocated deregulation.
I’m also particularly supportive of the current system of individual licensing, as administered by the SIA. An SIA licence gives an individual a passport to employment, meaning that he or she can work anywhere in our industry. This is undoubtedly a good thing for both employees and employers. While it gives individuals freedom to work across our industry, when someone comes to us with a licence we know they’ve been vetted and trained to a basic standard and checked by the SIA.
If I’m to be critical of the current system, however, it is that it isn’t publicised enough. The wider public needs to understand that the SIA exists and affords a licensing framework for the industry. When I say ‘the public’, I include those who purchase and use security services in this realm, as well as the wider public.
Indeed, I fear that the wider public has a stereotypical image of a security officer, fed by portrayals in the national media and fictional drama, as an unhelpful ‘jobsworth’ or a lazy and disinterested individual. This does a great disservice to the more than 300,000 people who work in our industry, who are licensed and serious about the job that they do. As it is, the negative perception of security in society reflects on our people and creates a downward spiral of low self-worth, which invites lower standards and impacts on professionalism.
We need to flip this spiral around and build pride in our industry and the work that security officers do. Awareness of individual licensing is key to this. With the police service facing financial pressures, the security industry is beginning to play an increasingly important role in safeguarding critical infrastructure. If the public understood the process of licensing and regulation, I’m certain there would be more respect for the industry and its crucial role.
Spectre of business licensing
I’m strongly against business licensing, the spectre of which continues to loom large over the industry. While some regulation is good, there’s no justification for increased and unnecessary regulation. The last 30 years have seen business and Government trying to deregulate wherever practical and possible. Business licensing goes against that trend.
Fundamentally, business licensing will create a greater burden on business, and at additional cost, for what is an already financially challenged industry. Preparing for my presentation last month, I discovered once again a chart from 2015 in which the SIA showed the administrative burden moving towards businesses and away from the Regulator. Furthermore, that chart highlights a decline in overall regulatory responsibility for the SIA as it transfers responsibilities to industry. Is this really what we want?
I find it hard to believe that business licensing will even stop the behaviour it seeks to prevent. I’ve heard claims from the SIA that business licensing will drive out organised criminality, yet in all my time in the industry, I have never come across an operator working within the commercial environment whom I’ve suspected of being linked to organised crime.
On a practical level, company law already exists to address illegal activity and, bearing in mind that even non-executive directors must at present hold ‘non-front line’ individual SIA licences, how can business licensing improve on that level of vetting? Do we not think that the criminal fraternity is clever enough to circumvent this? If criminals can successfully launder billions of pounds’ worth of drugs money, do we really believe a determined criminal organisation will not be able to override a self-administered vetting process?
Of course, while business licensing would increase the burden on law abiding business, any unscrupulous organisation wouldn’t apply to the legal requirements anyway, so in fact the only companies really affected would be the honest and legitimate ones.
Finally, it strikes me that business licensing is simply unworkable. How will it address the complexity of brass plaque organisations or companies with overseas shareholders? How can one insist on regulatory checks on shareholders in a Belgian-owned business or a holding company domiciled in Luxembourg?
Approved Contractor Scheme
There is, of course, a form of business licensing already in existence in the shape of the Approved Contractor Scheme (ACS). It’s voluntary. I know it has many detractors, but it’s a great deal better than not having any scheme at all. The introduction of mandatory business licensing would kill off the ACS. This would be a terrible mistake.
From my perspective, I could easily live with any plans to drop the proposed business licensing and adopt a mandatory ACS. All of the reliable and trustworthy security companies are on the ACS Register anyway, meaning that application and approval would only be a burden to the fringes of the industry that the Regulator is seeking to eradicate.
Indeed, in many respects ACS status provides a level of rigour that I, for one, welcome. For example, ACS requires vetting to BS 7858 which, to my mind, is far more robust than SIA licence requirements as it looks at five-year employment histories. In particular, we should consider how it might be used to forge improvement across the industry and drive out those on the fringes that the proposed business licensing is meant to address.
On that subject, the ACS should remain under the control of the Regulator and not be handed over to industry. This will leave the industry free to drive the important improvements needed.
Introducing bands of attainment within the ACS would have the effect of encouraging organisations to strive to improve their score. While we don’t need to publicly compare actual ACS audit scores, the opportunity to ‘band’ providers – whether Bronze, Silver or Gold, for example – would allow these same firms to demonstrate their expertise and use such a banding to differentiate their services in the quality end of the market.
Reactions and responses
At the Stakeholder Conference, it was very interesting to hear Ronnie Megaughin (chief inspector at Police Scotland) talk about his experiences of making ACS status mandatory for public sector tenders in Scotland. By all accounts, this has helped improve the quality of the security services provided north of the border and made tendering more transparent. This tells me that a mandatory ACS would work in England as well.
That said, I was questioned from the floor about whether a mandatory ACS would add excessive cost and burden to smaller security providers. Naturally, the ACS requires a business to make a commitment in terms of people and time, but if it plays a central part in the continual improvement of that business, then I would view any associated cost as an investment in the company.
For me, two points came across loud and clear at the SIA’s Stakeholder Conference. One was the need for partnership, whether between the regulatory body and private security providers or the industry and the police service.
The second point I noticed was the welcome recognition of the crucial role that the security industry plays in keeping people, property and assets safe across the UK. As Elizabeth France (chair of the SIA) remarked, there are more security staff than police officers in the UK. That’s 300,000 pairs of ‘eyes and ears’ trained to support the police’s sterling work. At a time when policing budgets are under considerable pressure, our industry’s importance to the UK’s security infrastructure is crystal clear.
However, the good work of the SIA, the existence of the ACS and the importance of the security business sector as a whole is poorly understood and unappreciated. As an industry we must act and take better control of our image. Indeed, it’s crucial that the private security industry buys into this key message.
From my own point of view, the reputation of the industry depends on it, while its future growth relies on positive action being taken.
Peter Webster is CEO of Corps Security
*The author of Risk UK’s regular column Security’s VERTEX Voice is Peter Webster, CEO of Corps Security. This is the space where Peter examines current and often key-critical issues directly affecting the security industry. The thoughts and opinions expressed here are intended to generate debate among practitioners within the professional security and risk management sectors. Whether you agree or disagree with the views outlined, or would like to make comment, do let us know (e-mail: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org)