Tories let security firms off lightly

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT will not bow to pressure to regulate the booming private security business, despite a host of complaints from senior police officers and civil liberties groups about guards being involved in theft, assaults and crimes against their customers.

David Maclean, the Home Office minister, will this week tell the Commons Home Affairs Committee that he sees no need to set up a statutory licensing body to control an industry whose 160,000 private guards now outnumber the police, Home Office sources said.

Labour members of the committee accused the Government of having an ideological hatred of regulation, even though "respectable" security firms were crying out for controls on "cowboy" operators.

Evidence submitted to the committee last week by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) revealed that at least three convicted killers, a rapist and dozens of house burglars have been found working in the security industry.

The pressure group Liberty gave the committee details of 14 cases where members of the public have been injured after clashes with private guards.

In the fight against the building of the M11 link road through East London, one demonstrator was taken to hospital after allegedly being slashed with a Stanley knife by a security guard, one woman claimed she was thrown into a patch of nettles and later kicked in the mouth and a third said he was punched and had his guitar destroyed.

During protests in June against the building of the Swainswick bypass near Bath, George Monbiot, an Oxford don, suffered broken bones in his foot after, he said, security guards threw him on to a rubble mound.

The security company has denied responsibility and variously claimed that he fell off a fence and fell into a ditch. Mr Monbiot said: "These people are just thugs in uniform."

The police did not prosecute his alleged assailants. But there have been several prosecutions against security companies employed by hunts. A uniformed guard hired by the Chiddingfold, Leconfield and Cowdray fox hunt was convicted of criminal damage after he smashed the windscreen of a saboteur's Land Rover. In 1993, guards at three hunts were arrested for kicking a protester in the groin, dragging a woman across logs and for being found with billiard cues and high powered catapults.

Liberty will launch a campaign next month claiming that the unregulated industry is incompatible with the observance of internationally recognised rights to freedom of assembly and privacy. It will call for a statutory regulatory body which could withdraw a company's licence to trade and impose legal sanctions on managers who failed to comply with licensing conditions.

ACPO told the committee that it was concerned about the accountability of security guards. It pointed out that they faced neither the disciplinary controls placed on police officers nor police forces' obligation to answer to elected police authorities.

In its submission, it said the vetting of security company personnel was fundamentally flawed. A survey of police forces found one guard who had served a sentence for murder and sexual offences, and another who was meant to be in prison for murder but had escaped and got a guard's job under a false name.

No national figures on the participation of members of the security industry in crime were available. But a trawl by Lancashire police of its records found that between January 1993 and September 1994, 130 security guards in the county committed 249 offences. The industry's reported offending rate was 21 times greater than the police service. If the Lancashire findings were typical of the country as a whole then, chief constables estimated, about 2,600 offences a year would be committed by security guards.

ACPO called for a thorough vetting procedure to be established. But a Home Office spo-kesman said ministers did not want controls because there was no demand from the industry for self-regulation to be abandoned.

Chris Mullin, a Labour member of the Home Affairs Committee, disputed this. "We have seen Group 4, Securicor, and the professional security associations. They all want proper regulation. It is only dogmatic ministers who boast about making a bonfire of controls who are opposed to taking action."