There are now as many private security guards in Britain as there are proper policemen, perhaps even more. Can they all be trusted? And why is society so keen to surrender its liberties to unregulated men in uniforms?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I AM writing these words in Canada Tower, the Independent on Sunday's Canary Wharf offices, courtesy of two private security guards. They had no formal police training, although both had been taught by a former military policeman. None the less, had they not foiled an IRA attempt to blow the skyscraper off the face of the earth in November 1992, these pages would have had to be produced elsewhere. One of the men who spotted the lorry- bomb is still employed by Canary Wharf Management's security force, although "for obvious reasons" they decline to identify him. Both were "well rewarded" for their quick wits.

The 85-strong private force to which they belong wears dark-blue uniforms and peaked caps. Its members are found underground at car parks, overground at roundabouts, behind pillars, inquiry desks, on the waterside, near the shops, patrolling office floors, riding lifts, eyeing tourists, examining shrubbery. They issue passes and scrutinise vehicles, including buses, at manned barriers, with a thoroughness that might once have been the envy of Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie. From a "central control room" they survey most of Canary Wharf through video cameras. They are trained in first aid, in the use of sophisticated surveillance and communication equipment, and in "people skills" - which range from answering questions to identifying trouble-makers. Like everything at Canary Wharf, they are polished to "customer-friendliness". Despite that, some find their omnipresence faintly sinister.

There may be a certain logic to drawing a cordon sanitaire between corporate power and public accessibility in a society thronged with predators, but there are also implications for liberty. (How unfashionable that word sounds today.) Replicated a thousand-fold in semi-public locations nationwide, the "Checkpoint Charlies" exert a powerful force for social change. Their uniformed sentries and patrols, their liveried cars and armoured trucks, their very ethos are symbols of a revolution which has neither dogma nor mandate, but which is quietly changing the way we live.

Despite statistics that occasionally suggest otherwise, the growth and fear of lawlessness have been one of the most troubling social phenomena since the Second World War. Last year, the number of violent crimes in England and Wales rose by 7 per cent, the biggest increase in five years. In London, where a violent crime is reported on average every 12 minutes, the increase was 15 per cent. The expansion of private security is a direct reflection of this trend, and society's response to it. Yet the expansion seems to have had little positive impact on overall criminality - other than, it could be argued, to encourage it. This is a paradox that requires some swallowing.

Beyond Canary Wharf, human pests in London's redeveloping docklands are controlled by other private firms, some in-house (like Canary Wharf's force); others hired from outside, such as Rentokil Security Services, which protects the Royal Docks and much of the rest of the Isle of Dogs. Rentokil, which we associate with extermination of woodworm and rodents, took over Securiguard, the existing security firm, in February. It has retained the word "Rentokil", picked out in red on the epaulettes of its patrolmen's navy-blue uniforms. According to the company, "because it's a name everyone's familiar with", no undue discomfiture has been noticed among the human denizens of the Isle of Dogs.

But there is discomfiture throughout the nation. There are now as many people employed by private security firms as there are uniformed police. One estimate is that the former (162,000) actually outnumber the latter by 12,000. Another estimate is that privateers are as many as 250,000. Last month's Police Federation conference in Bournemouth was warned by David French, chairman of the constables' central committee: "The growth in private security services means that those who can afford it are looking to hired hands to protect them... There is no plan behind it, no legislation. They're leaving it to market forces, but there are known criminals in some of these companies." Last month, too, John Stevens, chief constable of Northumbria, told Police Staff College recruits: "The private security industry has begun to enter areas of public life which, until recently, have been seen as the sole preserve of statutory regulated bodies such as the police and prison services." As a result of "meaningless" vetting, he said, "a great many criminals squeeze into the industry by deceit, whilst others simply walk through the door, unchecked". Last week's report by the Home Affairs Select Committee on the one hand contained recommendations aimed at making a pounds 3bn industry more accountable; and, on the other, left it open to that industry to apply for ancilliary functions currently run by the police.

Already, security firms have fingers in a staggering number of pies. Once, it was exclusively the task of the police to keep the unruly at bay, marshal parades, check shop doors after dark. On rare occasions, special constables were sworn in to subdue riot. Not any more. Today, privateers escort prisoners to jail, run prisons, guard installations. They repel anti-road protesters, defend construction sites and keep mourners in line, at, for example, Ronnie Kray's gangster funeral.

Warning voices have been raised against this state of affairs. MPs, such as David Jamieson and Neville Trotter, have called for the strictest possible regulations for the formation and monitoring of private security firms. The Associa-tion of Chief Police Officers recently compiled figures showing that at least 2,600 crimes a year are carried out by the very people hired by neighbourhoods to protect them. Streets have been patrolled by teams which have included a rapist, three killers and dozens of burglars. In one private security firm, 11 of the 26 employees had a total of 74 convictions for such serious crimes as assault, rape and firearms offences. One 28- year-old guard from the North-east had been convicted 49 times, mainly for burglary. Another man worked as a security guard while on the run from a life sentence for murder. Superintendent John Stoddart, who compiled the dossier for the ACPO, observed: "Many employees in the industry have horrendous convictions. This is just the tip of the iceberg."

One of his case histories underlines the difficulty. An employee of a security company recently applied for a shotgun certificate. The application was endorsed by his managing director, who said of the applicant: "I have known Mr X for one year... he has worked for Y [the private security company] this length of time. Mr X has a sociable nature and a good even temperament. I recommend him as honest and a very reliable person who can be trusted." Police inquiries into Mr X revealed that this "honest and very reliable person" had at least 15 previous convictions for dishonesty and violence. One of these was for burglary involving the use of explosives. Even more disturbingly, the employee had a conviction for the man-slaughter of his wife, whom he suspected of having had an extra-marital affair and being pregnant by a third party. Mr X had demonstrated his "sociable nature and good even temperament" by forcibly attempting to carry out an illegal abortion on his wife with a sharp instrument. She died. A post-mortem revealed that she was not pregnant.

Reports increasingly trickle into the press and on to television of security firms which are no better than groups of con-men and gangsters. In one recent case, private guards charged tenants of a West Country estate pounds 1 a head per week, payable in advance, to patrol the streets. They then left the tenants in the lurch, their streets unpatrolled. At the least reputable end of the industry - nightclub bouncers - groups of "doormen" (as they prefer to be called) have been accused of using violence to control the clublands of Liverpool and Newcastle, dealing in drugs and extorting money.

A glance in the Yellow Pages shows the extent to which unregulated private security firms have invaded aspects of our daily lives: property protection, store detection, insurance investigations, surveillance services, alarm systems, bodyguarding, escorting cash and valuables, key-holding, dog- handling, security marking, advice against bomb threats, kidnapping and extortion, debugging, investigations of theft, fraud and product piracy, personnel vetting, crowd control, crisis management, airport, bank and embassy security, spy-catching, anti-vandal patrols, the issuing of identity cards, wheel-clamping, bullet-proofing, bomb detection, entry systems, staff awareness training, staff evaluation, fire safety, protection services, shredding of confidential waste, club, pub and hotel bouncers, anti-blast window-film, telephone scramblers. Their advertisements reveal men in police-like uniforms, with German shepherd dogs, or on horseback, or at control desks. They wear shields and crests with lions rampant. One firm's logo is a crusader's suit of armour; another's is an owl; a third's is a "robo-cop" menacing a safe-breaker. Some refer to their men as "experienced senior officers".

Such activities and images give one pause for thought - perhaps even alarm. When I see, on television, unlicensed and unregulated (at best self-regulated) men in uniform manhandling "mobs" who protest against the demolition of houses to make way for the M11, I feel a chilling sense of waning freedoms. Witnessing private security firms bracing the exportation of veal calves from British ports produces a similar lurch of the heart. Three years ago, organisers of a beagling festival in Northumberland hired a private security firm using former SAS men to carry screaming protesters from the land. The Government wants to slash the number of police at football matches and pop concerts, believing that private security firms and specially- hired stewards can cope well enough (just as the Hell's Angels once did for the Rolling Stones). There are Home Office plans for allowing private security outfits to take offenders to court when they breach curfew orders. A primary school in Paisley has hired a private security firm to protect teachers from violent parents. And after a break-in at police headquarters in Edinburgh, the Chief Constable hired a private firm to protect the building. Are we being inundated by private armies?

IF YOU look south-west from Canada Tower, you can identify Southwark's Aylesbury Estate, far across the Thames, through binoculars. It too has its private security force, six men at any one time, in what looks like paramilitary garb: black berets, black windcheaters and trousers, gold company insignia saying "UKG" - UK Guard Security, a firm with headquarters in Leicester. From a distance, in the afternoon haze, the largest council estate in Europe seemed dull but peaceful. In reality and at night, however, nastiness stalks its streets. Recently, Southwark councillors voted themselves free taxis after 5pm because, they said, the streets they govern are too unsafe to walk.

Parked on Southwark's East Street, waiting for dusk and the UK Guards, I saw, in my offside mirror, the flashing beacon on the cone of Canada Tower, some two miles away. On my left was a patch of grass behind iron railings; on my right a bookie's, fishmonger, cafe, news-agent, Giro bank, dry cleaner, minimarket, hairdresser, butcher and florist. Ahead loomed (the only word for it) Taplow House in Thurlow Street, a 12-storey block the colour of gutter dust, its design resembling one of those air conditioners on older New York window-ledges. Taplow House did not breathe freshness. Ramps to its integrated car park were closed. Few windows in the flats occupying the 10 upper floors were open to light and air, even though most of the flats are occupied. In a ground floor office, housing officials, residential representatives and Carl Boyce, local UK Guards manager, were being briefed by a police officer on the current law and order situation. Waiting for Mr Boyce to emerge, I chatted to two of his patrolmen, neither of whom was keen to be photographed.

"I do this job part-time," the older one said, by way of explanation. "I do other jobs as well." His colleague, also part-time, called someone on his mobile phone. "Yeah, well, I'm shy of photographers," he muttered. Were they ex-pecting trouble tonight? "Nah, it's mostly this," the older one said, moving his hand to his mouth, then moving his thumb and fingers together like a duck quacking.

Mr Boyce joined us. He was a short man with a black beard and shaven head. He sported the company's black beret, but wore a white shirt to distinguish him as a manager. Like most security guards, he was ex-Army; efficient in movement and economical in conversation. "Age 37. Fusiliers. Infantry. Demobbed '86. There's no training manual. Apart from learning about criminal law, it's on-job training. Mistake-wise not much of a problem." I strolled with him through the streets behind Taplow House.

The "beat" embraces 4,000 households, most of which were so fed up with robberies and drug trafficking in their midst and so infuriated at living in what was being called a "no-go area", that a few years ago they started to demand private policing. The borough housing department org-anised it for them, putting the task out to tender and collecting the cost - pounds 200,000 a year, or pounds 50 per tenant - along with the tenants' rent. The patrols started in February 1994. According to Jim Winter, the assistant housing director, it has been worthwhile. "Robberies on the estate dropped by 40 per cent in the first year," he said. "This is a multiracial area, and it helps considerably that UK Guard has multiracial patrols. They have good liaison with the police. And they don't mind going to court as witnesses of a crime, whereas the tenants usually felt too threatened to give evidence."

Mr Boyce turned into Villa Street, one of a maze of terrace houses. He said: "At first we wanted dogs, but the council said no. Dogs can be unreliable and seen as a provocation." A lace curtain twitched. "I always tell my men anybody can lose control and go over the top," he said. "But if you do, you'll have a crowd around you in no time and you'll end up getting a kicking. If you go to hospital, your P45 follows you there." He paused to listen to a woman who claimed to have been mugged a week previously.

Later, one of Mr Boyce's colleagues, an ex-sailor called Ian, seemed nervous as he knocked on the door of a flat from which music blared. Would the occupant mind turning it down a bit... please? The tall householder glared at them, objecting to the presence of a photographer. A slanging- match ensued. The patrolmen remained polite, though tense. The householder seemed unintimidated by the two uniforms on his doorstep. At one point his anger appeared on the point of boiling over. The UKG-men seemed nervous. The householder's eyes were contemptuous as he closed the door on them. The music was turned down slightly, then up, higher than ever. No further action was taken. Compared with most weekends, when Southwark's muggers and druggies are out in strength and hi-fi thunders into the wee, small hours, it was a mild flutter on the drums.

I was surprised to learn that the UKG-men get on well with the Southwark police, who respond promptly to them whenever troublemakers appear (with arrests and charges sometimes ensuing). Southwark police put the best face they can on the privateers' presence. "Street crime tends to be concentrated in certain parts of the borough," Chief Superinten-dent Hynes said. "There are areas best avoided after dark." In fact, the police helped out Southwark borough council by helping them to assess UK Guard and its personnel.

An even greater police courtesy was ex-tended to the Canary Wharf force. "The groun-ding our staff receive in general security duties includes an involvement with the police who do part of our training for us - although I'm not sure they'll thank me for advertising that," said John Allen, the former military policeman who runs the Canary Wharf service.

Other policemen are less accommodating. Chief Constable David Shattock of Avon and Somerset has warned that unregulated growth of the private firms is an "open invitation" to criminals, and Chief Constable Keith Povey of Leicestershire has railed against "creeping erosion" of the police image and declared: "We do not want private security firms - many of whom are cowboys - damaging it." No one seriously expects a British county to go as far as the town of Sussex, in New Jersey, which replaced its entire police force with private security guards. But, were a trend in this direction to gather momentum here, it is easy to see how it would would be fuelled. The more successful a private security patrol is in a particular area, the worse conditions become in surrounding areas. The 40 per cent decrease in robberies in South-wark's Aylesbury Estate has coincided with a 28 per cent increase in the rest of the borough. If communities adjacent to Aylesbury then decide that they also need special protection, who knows where things will end up? The residents of Aylesbury Estate were themselves taking a leaf out of a northern town's book when they "went private".

Sedgefield, near Durham, has had its own private crime-fighting force - called community patrols - for a couple of years. The district council became the first in Britain to hire a specially trained squad, on the grounds that its own police had neither the time nor the manpower to respond properly to vandalism, "joy-riding" and other anti-social behaviour. The scheme, involving 11 uniformed patrol "officers", equipped with six vehicles, radios and a computerised control centre, costs pounds 200,000 a year. It is run by a former senior policeman, John Reed, who now gives lectures on the system throughout the country. Before the private unit was formed, Sedgefield's crime rate had risen by 8 per cent. In the following year, crime dropped by 20 per cent. Relations between the police and the newcomers are said to be good. But, whatever the impact of such schemes, few seem keen to talk about side-effects, just as few want to emphasise drawbacks. Private security operations are ad hoc affairs. The industry does not address itself to the wider community. Its members do not liaise with one another; the style, intention and effect of their activities vary from firm to firm, none of which has any reason to worry that controlling crime in its own centre of operation is likely to cause an outbreak beyond it, where no privateers may be active.

ALMOST 8,000 private security companies are operating in Britain, making the British industry the second-largest in Europe (behind Germany). Many belong to the British Security Industry Association, based in Worcester, or the International Professional Security Assoc-iation, based in Paignton. These are respectable organisations anxious for the reputation of their corporate and individual members. On the other hand, an estimated 1,000 firms are affiliated to no professional body. Among these are the "cowboys" whose activities tend to blacken the image of the industry. Counting them, never mind regulating them, is a problem. "It's hard to say. There could be hundreds, if not thousands of firms in London," said the BSIA spokesman, Andrew MacKay. "Anyone can set up a security company using a mobile phone."

David French told last month's Police Federation conference that the public enjoyed neither the right to vet private security services, nor any independent assurance of "honesty and quality of service from these firms... when things go wrong. It's one thing for a burglar to steal your telly; another to pay him to do it." And Chief Constable Stevens, in his lecture, said: "The private security industry wishes to enter our domain. But if they want to play a similar game they must play by similar rules.

"As a result of our collective day-by-day experience, confirmed by the research my office has recently undertaken, we have serious misgivings about the calibre of many of those em-ployed by the industry at the point of service delivery," he said. "It causes us grave concern to note that vetting prior to entry into the industry and training thereafter is not mandatory and, when companies choose to bother with such things, is often woefully inadequate."

This seems like an understatement, given that six months ago, four bouncers belonging to security firms were either shot or stabbed in Liverpool. But another bouncer said at the time: "We are misunderstood. People only see us as bad guys. We are doing a job that's necessary, and people forget that."

This, of course, is the heart of the matter: perceived necessity. More and more sectors of society are now demanding private policing, convinced that there is no potent alternative, given cuts in the police establishment. (When Securicor took over escorting prisoners to and from jail in London, 230 police posts were wiped off the strength of the metropolitan force.) Further, we have grown so accustomed to privatisation elbowing into public enterprises that one more institution transformed should make little difference. We are capable of persuading ourselves that the transformation is "necessary" and even benign.

"Crudely, on the most general level, the reality is that we have witnessed an extraordinary rise in crime since the war," said Tim Newburn of the Policy Studies Unit, which produced a discussion document, jointly with the Police Foundation, last year. "Crime is still rising. There is also an increasing fear of crime. Along-side that, there is an increasing awareness that there are limits to what the police can manage. If you listen to police representatives, you hear them casting doubt on their ability to remain at current strength. Inevitably, people will seek other forms of provision."

In the past, people such as park wardens helped keep order in public places. School caretakers regarded property protection as part of their job. Warehousemen had similar responsibilities. "They had been responsible for a degree of social control and a degree of security. But we lost them with the emphasis on competitiveness and streamlining," Mr New-burn said. "They disappeared. That vacuum is being filled by private security." Andrew MacKay seemed very forthright on behalf of the BSIA, which was, he said, "very concerned at the unchecked growth" of community security firms. "We have heard anecdotal evidence of vulnerable people, elderly ladies and so on, being specifically approached in some areas, and told that their street or their house has been targeted for burglary, but that if they pay an extra pounds 3 a week, the patrols will be stepped up and they will be safe. That's pure protectionism. It's the Kray philosophy."

The BSIA represents 280 companies, which between them employ 83,000 people. It was formed in 1967 - 32 years after Securicor, an industry leader, was founded. Mr MacKay, soft-spoken and compactly built, became the association's spokesman seven years ago after a spell of journalism in London. His office in the BSIA's modern red-brick headquarters was tidy. He answered each question after giving it thought. The industry's recent high profile, he said, resulted from the spread of terrorism since the 1970s, and from a decade of diversification. "In the 1980s, you had increasing usage of computers and market intelligence which, in the hands of a competitor, can be extremely damaging. That's the backdrop - the need to protect oneself. Add to that the high-profile government advertising campaigns against burglary and domestic theft. So the whole issue of crime and security has become intermingled with law and order, a process that has spawned a multi-million industry covering conferences, public events, publishing, and so on. It has become an industry that is extremely well-developed and extremely well-served."

In 1970, the private security industry had a turnover of pounds 55m. Six years later, according to a Home Office Green Paper, it was pounds 135m. By the early 1980s it had grown to pounds 400m, doubling within a further four years. In 1990 turnover passed pounds 1.2bn.

Lest I should assume that a $2bn monster was taking over our lives, Mr MacKay injected comfort into our conversation. "In shopping malls, male and female security officers act as agony aunts for lost children," he said. "It's an industry in which good people are in demand. Until recently, it didn't attract the right calibre, not least because of the lack of career structure. That is changing. Law enforcement must always be in the police domain, but the security industry is the eyes and ears of law enforcement."

Yet the oppressive feeling that one experiences as a result of encountering hordes of not-quite-cops at every turn refuses to go away. When David French tells his police colleagues that uniformed officers no longer appear to be "the front line of policing, the backbone of the service", one suspects a degree of professional propaganda at work. But even in "crime-free" Canary Wharf, office workers such as I, find ourselves muttering about unrelieved Orwel-lian surveillance: a uniformed privateer at the escalator to the Docklands Light Railway, another at the swing-doors into the Canada Tower concourse, three more in the concourse itself, a sixth at the swing- doors out of the concourse, and three or four more around the banks of lifts. They are terribly polite, their demeanour that of people sent to help us. But all this "help" pressing in also increases our sense of vulnerability.

The question is not whether private security firms should take over from the police in, say, escorting "wide loads" on motorways. In Tim Newburn's view, there is "incredible room for expansion" for the privateers, particularly in police ancillary areas. The question arises, rather, from the multiplicity of bodies charged with protecting and policing us. With so many public and private security organisations vying for the right to circumscribe our daily activities, how much more of our personal freedom may now be in jeopardy?

Even in well-behaved Canary Wharf, a few people have strenuously objected to being accosted by the management's security men. "There are a lot of perverts in the area, and we escort them off," said John Allen. "You are entitled to use a reasonable amount of force. But some of our legitimate users do get upset, and can't see why they have been stopped and questioned about what they are doing." Mr Allen sounds a reasonable man, but his phrase "legitimate users", in relation to his "beat", strikes a discordant, if not faintly sinister, note (as does the popular argument that mandatory identity cards would not infringe the liberty of "law-abiding citizens"). I do not warm to the idea that my "legitimacy" in my place of work is to be determined by a group of uniformed guards who know nothing about me and over whose activities I have no influence whatever.

Andrew MacKay acknowledges the growing public concern. "The community patrols mean that for the first time, to any measurable extent, we are seeing security firms put in direct contact with members of the public," he said. "Until there is regulation, a licensing procedure, checks, it will be impossible to monitor the activities of these firms."

Until recently, the Government resisted regulation for two reasons: lack of evidence of criminality in the industry, and a desire not to set up another bureaucracy. "The first argument has certainly been discounted," Mr MacKay said. "The electronic side of the industry (access-control systems and the like) is already self-policed, with channels of complaint. But on the manned security side in the public arena you need official regulation. It should be a criminal offence to operate without a formally recognised licence."

David French thinks the "Orwellian phase" is nearing. "It worries me," he said. "Not because of police jobs, but because people are suddenly going to wake up and find themselves depending on Guard-U-Right and Rentokil." 8