Liz France interview: part two

by Mark Rowe

We round off our interview with the chair of the Security Industry Authority (SIA), Liz France, whose seven years at the regulator ends on January 14. Earlier (click here for part one of yesterday’s interview), she discussed the SIA’s relations with the industry; here, she turns to more nuts and bolts stuff – such as the one thing that many of those applying for a first-time badge or renewing bother about above all = how much it costs.

As Professional Security said to Liz France, the SIA licence is like the TV licence – in that, the cost of it is the number one issue. And the SIA can point to the cost of the licence application actually falling, quite substantially, from £245 in 2007 to today’s £190. What else has gone down in price? Petrol, of late; and consumer electronics, although that may be a poor comparison because products we take for granted today were not around in 2007.

What also matters is the efficiency of the SIA as it processes the applications, and here Liz France says that the SIA has made ‘huge strides’ in the last seven years. That did include the troubles that seem to come with all tech changes by a government body – strictly speaking, the SIA is under the Home Office as an ‘arm’s length body’, when the regulator made the change to digital from paper document-based – which, as featured in the December 2020 print edition of Professional Security magazine, did mean that when lockdown came in March, the SIA was able to carry on remotely.

‘I think you will find we have got a pretty efficient licensing system – I don’t get complaints like I did in the past,’ she said. Here is the job of non-executive directors, anywhere – while the executives do the day to day work, it’s for the non-execs to look to the metrics, to query and to check.

To return to Liz France: “One of the things I am really proud of is the change in processing time,” for in 2017 and 2018 it was taking 18 days on average; ‘now, it takes nine days’. Going digital, as in any field, offers the possibilities of driving and holding down costs – which does matter, given that a SIA badge-holder may be on or near minimum wage. Liz France did stress the point that while that application fee has come down, that is not the same as saying that the SIA is doing less; rather, the processing of licences has become less labour-intensive, allowing the regulator to use its resources for ‘risk-based work’, such as ‘interventions’, which is a jargon term for investigating wrong-doing.

By chance, the SIA’s new acting director of inspections and enforcement, John Montague – an SIA man since the very early days, 2004 – as we spoke with Liz France, was speaking to the security conference online by the guarding contractor OCS; and he and Liz France said much the same things. There are, for example, 365,000 people on the SIA register (which is not the same as the number of SIA badges out there, because some people may have more than one – such as, a guarding or door superviser one; and one for public space CCTV monitoring).

One failure Liz France admitted without prompting was the wish for 20 per cent of the sector to be women by 2020. While representation of women in any industry can be difficult to measure, the SIA has the exact numbers; and the percentage has stuck, hovering between nine and 11 per cent. Plainly – given that related sectors such as the police, armed forces and HM Prison Service each have their own debates about diversity and inclusion, and are looking to be representative of the populations they serve – getting more women to become SIA licensed, and then stay in the industry, is not straightforward.

It’s a mystery, Professional Security says, and she agrees. “We can only talk and encourage.” Not everyone entering the industry will go on to run their own company; but as she puts it: “I am a great one for believing that what you should do is remove barriers and then it is a matter of choice; and then it’s for the industry to make itself attractive.”

Those seeking to bring more women into private security, and into the higher ranks, tend to speak of the good example of role models. Liz France does mention Kate Bright, who joined the SIA as a non-exec in February; and Professional Security’s own annual Women in Security (WiS) awards, which it’s only fair to add the SIA has supported all along, including Liz France’s predecessor, Baroness Henig. But in the end – and Ruth Henig and Liz France are career role models themselves – the truth is as Liz France says: “There is much more to be done, that’s for sure.”

The SIA is asking what the pandemic might mean for the shape of the industry; for that matters as much to the SIA as those providing services; as the SIA’s income is from industry, the regulator will need to know in good time if there’s any rise or fall in demand for licences, and of which sort (door security and contract guarding have all along been the two largest categories). Ever since the door licence came in first, in the mid-2000s, there’s a three-year cycle of renewals, besides new applications all the time. Will the pandemic-lockdowns make a long-term impact on event security for instance, Liz France asks.

At the beginning of lockdown in the spring, applications (that is, income) dropped, not surprisingly, as Liz says; ‘and we were watching carefully to see if that meant we had to make any changes in what we were planning to do. Remarkably, those numbers have recovered. Why might this be? Maybe, people are getting badges and working part-time, and doing other things; or, they are working in security while they are not able to follow their main career. Or, security work is out there – yes, in not events, or aviation; but at supermarkets, construction, in town centres. “Whatever the reason, and we are relying on intelligence fed from the industry, it does seem the licence population is being maintained, at a level we would have expected without the pandemic.”

Another development during the pandemic has been online training – not possible for the physical intervention and restraint part of the door superviser course, during social distancing. Talking of training, here Liz France turns to counter-terrorism: “I am very proud of the work we have done with our colleagues in the Home Office to make sure the right sort of training is available for security professionals.”

This comes under ACTAction Counters Terrorism – and takes in cyber and the physical world, how to report suspicions of radicalisation, and the ACT Awareness e-Learning, an awareness product designed for all UK based organisations – and since December 2019 the general public. It’s all been well-received as she said; and she has taken the 45-minute awareness course herself.

As any of her talks to the Security TWENTY series of conference-exhibitions shows – and senior SIA staffers have spoken at ST also, over the years – there’s always something new or developing at the SIA. That said, it has to stay constant to its position; not as a lobbyist let alone as a cheer-leader for the industry it regulates; yet, as in March when security officers were (ultimately) included in a long UK government list of ‘key workers‘, the SIA does represent the industry in a matter that’s important practically and symbolically. Liz France sums up: “We want to be a listening regulator, we need the intelligence and support of the industry.”

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