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Who’s Watching Now?

12 April 2011

With question marks surrounding the SIA’s future following the Coalition Government’s decision to axe theSIA, Keith Francis, discusses the industry’s continuing need for regulation, and what options lie ahead.

PICTURE THE ARCHETYPAL SECURITY OFFICER and certain unfortunate clichés might spring to mind: the lazy man slumped in his chair with his feet on the desk, behind a screen in a control room – sleeping or messily eating a doughnut or the sly character that uses his authority and knowledge to facilitate crime and takes a cut for himself.
Needless to say, the media has done little to promote the reputation of our industry, one which even by its other FM cousins is often viewed as a low value service incurring significant cost. However, the sad truth of the matter is that the media portrays – albeit in a caricature fashion – what a very small part of the security industry represented in the 1990s and early 2000 years when it was self-regulated.
At the turn of the Millennium, some might argue that the state of self-regulation was pitiful: a mere 100 companies out of 3000 were voluntary regulated through membership with the trade body British Security Industry Association (BSIA). Admittedly these 100 companies did account for some 80 percent of the industry’s revenue but it meant that the vast majority of security providers were unmonitored, unregulated and unable to give clients any assurance about their officers, hence the general negative reputation.
It was these reasons that were behind a demand for regulation of the security industry, a demand which eventually led to the Private Security Industry Act being passed in Parliament in 2001. The Act established a Government body, the Security Industry Authority (SIA), to license and regulate individuals in the security sector, rather than companies as previously. Five years later in 2006 the requirement for each and every security officer working for a contract company to have a licence finally became law, giving each sector in the industry its own licence: manned guarding (cash and valuables in transit, close protection, door supervision, public space surveillance (CCTV), security guard); immobilisation, restriction and removal of vehicles; and key holding.
The licence involved an identity check – to ensure the person was who they said – and a criminality check, to rid the industry of its link with crime. These checks were, and still are, managed by the SIA and are coupled with two exams over a four-day training course period to ensure individuals are qualified for the job.
These three simple requirements have marked a vital step for the industry. However, licensing is just half of the SIA’s remit and every responsible organisation in the sector will agree that, taking the price out of the equation, this regulation can only be seen as a good thing. Consequences of not adhering to the law are understandably severe and it is the SIA’s duty to enforce the law, using teams of investigators to conduct random searches, town by town, to see that every officer has a valid licence on show. Furthermore, in 2006 it also became a criminal offence for a contracted provider to place non-licensed employees within contract, an issue which prompted the collapse of two large security organisations which chose to ignore this.
The SIA’s secondary role has always been to set core standards within the industry – an aspiration which goes hand in hand with regulating the workforce. As part of this, the body developed a benchmarking stamp designed to be awarded to only the best security providers, achieving the highest standards. The Approved Contractor Scheme (ACS) requires a large-scale audit after which companies can apply for the ACS mark of quality.
Unfortunately the ACS has not lived up to the industry’s hopes and expectations; a quality mark only provides a useful aid for clients if it is relatively exclusive and indicates superior standards, yet there are now more than 700 ACS companies.
While the ACS has done little to drive standards, the SIA has also made no ground in improving training or competency in the industry in the last five years. Therefore, although standard, industry-wide regulation has been a great success, the same cannot be said for the SIA’s other aim. The question is, if the SIA is an ineffective vehicle fordriving standards at the taxpayers’ expense, is it fit for purpose or should other options be considered? This question, coupled with some recent high profile cases of robbery and assault by security professionals, seems to have brought the SIA to the Government’s attention.
The industry consensus of the potential abolition or at least reduction in size of the SIA is mixed. Although the ACS has, to some level at least, been a disappointment, taking away the SIA could undo almost a decade of good work.
When news of the SIA’s future first broke, the industry’s initial reaction was to wonder what would happen next and whether another organisation would take over a similar role. It now transpires that the process of licensing will continue but not necessarily via the SIA – perhaps instead controlled by the DVLA or Passport Authority. Regardless of the organisation which manages this, the Government has recognised that removing the need for licences would be detrimental to the whole industry.
It is generally agreed that another organisation should take over the responsibility for raising standards. As it stands the Security Alliance, an amalgam of 26 parties including the BSIA, Security Institute and Skills for Security, has agreed to share a single voice to advise the Government on how to move forward and raise standards.
Whatever its future, the SIA has done much for employees and clients of the security industry: for clients, the SIA has given a confidence that every officer has been individually screened, vetted and trained for the job. However, there is a thorn in this rose in the form of the licence cost; at £250 per licence, lasting three years,. It is a cost that has been impossible for large security providers to absorb and therefore ultimately one which has had to be shared with the client.
For employees too, the benefits of licensing have been tangible. Every officer has a badge from the Home Office, authenticating security as a true profession – something that in the UK we have been slow to recognise, unlike our central European counterparts who hold much respect for security officers.
I am grateful for what the SIA has done for the security industry and its regulatory work should not be forgotten but with a shake-up definitely on the cards, we have an opportunity to move the industry forward in a way which the SIA was never able. We, as an industry, should encourage this evolution for the sake of our clients, our officers and our profession.
Keith Francis is Managing Director of one of the leading providers of security services, VSG, part of the Compass Group UK & Ireland and one of the UK’s leading suppliers of security services, offering total solutions that encompass guarding, systems, remote monitoring, training and background screening.

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