But despite the boom in the security market, and calls from senior police officers for legislation, the Government is refusing to regulate the industry, warns one of the survey's authors.
The first comprehensive study of the burgeoning industry estimates that there are at least 7,842 security business establishments in the UK employing more than 162,000 people. This compares with approximately 150,000 uniformed officers in England, Wales, Scotland and North Ireland.
Personnel in the study included private detectives, bailiffs, security guards, credit investigation services, and surveillance camera operators. Firms specialising in electronic equipment and security guarding accounted for more than half the number of firms identified. There are 721 detective agencies, 454 debt collecting companies, and 466 firms that deal with car security.
Preliminary findings from the survey show that the number of people employed in the security industry has risen from 112,200 in 1985 to about 162,300 in 1992.
The survey is part of the Economic and Social Research Council's crime and social order programme, which is examining the relationship between the private security sector and the police. Future research will examine the 'blurring' of the private and public activities and classification of the security industry.
Tim Newburn, one of the study's researchers, from the Policy Studies Institute, said: 'Although the industry is already as big as the police force, it is set to get bigger and have a significant impact on our everyday lives, yet there is no regulation over its activities. Few other industries of this size and impact go unregulated.
'People should be concerned about whether there are safeguards and standards within the industry.'
A spokeswoman for the British Security Industry Association - representing about 230 companies - said: 'We would like regulation because at the moment anyone can set up a security business and operate it. Cowboy operators are dragging the image of the industry down.'
A spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers described the situation as 'obviously open to abuse'.
The Government has repeatedly turned down calls for statutory legislation of the industry. A Home Office spokeswoman said: 'Self- regulation is best as there are already sufficient laws to control maverick operators. The vast majority seem to operate in a responsible way.'
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