Case Studies

Tories win in 2019: what now for private security

by Mark Rowe

After the Conservative Party won a comfortable majority in the December 2019 general election, what now for private security? asks Mark Rowe.

If crime got much of a mention during the election campaign – and it did not – it was only as Boris Johnson mentioned it as in a letter he signed to postal voters; the promise of 20,000 more police officers. Like much of the Labour spending programme that voters rejected, the ‘20,000 more police’ was a curiously old-fashioned, even quaint, promise, let alone when the promise in full was ‘20,000 more on the streets’. Leaving aside the politics of the 20,000 – whether that extra number will do more than bring the total number of police to what it was when the Conservatives took power from Labour in 2010, and how sensible it is to recruit and train and deploy those thousands of extra police – life has moved on since bobbies were on the beat. Much of crime is cyber-enabled.

The 20,000 more matters to contract guarding companies because at least some of the 20,000 will come from SIA-badged guards, looking for a career in the police, and the guarding sector is already feeling a shortage of the right, or any, labour. But life has moved on inside the police. Its pensions and job for life are not what they were; people are looking to work a few years in the police, and dip out again, over the course of a career. The them and us of police and private security has faded, regardless of which party is in power.

Of the two main topics to consider, politics matters for one, regulation through the Security Industry Authority; and less so for the other, protection of assets generally. On the SIA, as was made plain at its annual conference last month by speakers from SIA chief executive Ian Todd down, the Private Security Industry Act 2001 that made the SIA in the mid-2000s is showing its age and the SIA could do with a re-boot through primary legislation, to reflect the 2020s, whether that is hiring through online agency, surveillance by drones, or more politically contentious to go for licensing of businesses rather than primarily of individuals. A Boris Johnson government like the Coalition from 2010 onwards may be regulation-sceptic, or more practically occupied with Brexit for years to come. Besides, Brexit has the added advantage for UK politicians of being the perfect excuse for inaction or shortcoming, maybe for decades.

Ideally, the private security industry will get regulation that fits it for purpose for a cyber-connected, fast-moving world different from even the 2000s. More likely, at best private security will be left by government to get on with its business.

That means a more assertive manned security sector that is quite well placed in the digital economy to offer value-added services, as a remarkably sweeping presentation by Securitas UK executive Craig Robb set out to the SIA conference, in terms of strategy and keeping up with what the customer demands; and Birmingham NEC client and OCS security services contractor also set out in terms of day to day partnering to protect a site and its people. As featured in the print issues of Professional Security magazine from December 2019 to February 2020, guard firms – typically and intriguingly fair to mid-sized regional firms, not the massive likes of Securitas – are nimbly picking up high street patrol work that looks like policing, though with reason those guard firms are denying that they are doing the work of the police.

Ironically, the customers for on-street private security patrolling are local government (including Conservative-run councils) or business improvement districts (BIDs), set up in the 2000s under Labour. Those 20,000 extra police won’t translate into a much different feel to police in your local town or city. What will it actually be; one extra person in a car, on a Friday night? Will you notice any difference, as a doorman, or college or business park facilities manager? Probably the new norm of police as a blue-light fire brigade, putting out crime ‘fires’ service will persist. Every day is Christmas Day for police now, in the sense that whereas before 2010 on Christmas Day police forces ran an emergency response only service because they were too tight-fisted to pay overtime, now police are running that 999-response-only-style service all the time.

This is a profound change to how Britain’s high streets are protected – the everyday work, Dixon of Dock Green-like showing your face to shops and knowing what the local ne’er-do-wells are up to, by private security SIA-badged officers, while police answer emergency calls such as acts of violence and threats with bladed weapons. Sadly it went unmentioned in the 2019 election, whether a worrying sign of a weakened British civic spirit, or the effect of Brexit toxically drowning out all other issues.

And even if the 20,000 extra officers do make a difference, that is not to assume that before 2010 Britain was perfectly policed – anti-social behaviour and shop theft, let alone cyber and fraud, were not particularly well covered by the state even then. The lack of debate over the changed policing landscape does go back to the SIA and how if at all the manned security sector should be regulated.

– should the SIA badge require more than the basic 30-hour training? What of first aid, or counter-terrorism awareness, or the skills necessary to do that demanding job of walking up and down the high street as the front line.
– should the SIA put its weight behind sector-specific training, such as for university campuses (where security patrollers have a welfare remit, to look after students’ well-being) and healthcare.
– those guard firms offering sector-specific and CSAS (Community Safety Accreditation Scheme) high street patrollers – should they have an approved contractor status-plus from the SIA? For years there have been grumbles from the 800 or so ACS companies – is there a case for a higher standard, that roughly the top 100 or 200 only can attain, to reflect the extra service that private security can give, and indeed routinely is giving already?

These questions – as much for the buyers of security services, as for the private security sector – would be there even if Jeremy Corbyn were walking up Downing Street to take power this morning. Private security has always been a second-order political issue, whereas ‘law and order’ and crime are of the first order. Private security never makes the headlines or the political agenda, unless let’s say a doorman assaults the daughter of an MP.

Picture by Mark Rowe; display at the International Security Expo at London Olympia last week.

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