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Has U.K. Security Officer Regulation Been a Success?

THE SECURITY Industry Authority (SIA), which the British government established to raise the standards of private security officers, has suffered a spate of embarrassing scandals since its creation nearly six years ago.

In November, the head of the authority stepped down after it was discovered that he had failed to appropriately vet some members of the agency’s own staff.

Problems date to 2007 when media raised questions, later substantiated, about whether SIA had incorrectly licensed as security officers as many as 11,000 illegal immigrants. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith later told Parliament that 6,653 of those granted licenses did not have the right to work in the country; and, in 4,447 other cases, the individual had not sufficiently proved the right to work.

Early in 2008, an SIA whistleblower, who said the security industry is being infiltrated by criminals, was featured on an investigative news show. Then in October, the National Audit Office identified several problems at the SIA, including that the SIA does not do a good job of tracking which businesses employ which licensed individuals and does not know how many private security companies there are.

The report also found that the SIA has, on multiple occasions, been unable to cope with increased demand for licenses, causing a backlog of applications for licenses, and that the authority was £17 million ($25.8 million) over budget. The National Audit Office further found that security officer licensing could have been implemented more efficiently; the report distributed blame among the Home Office, the SIA, and the security industry.

Britain’s security leaders disagree about how serious the problems are at the agency.

“I personally believe it is a minor setback,” says Gary Ash, director of international security at Cardinal Health, referring to the recent problems at the SIA.

“I think it’s just part of the process of becoming a trusted industry,” Ash says. “There are going to be errors, there are going to be shortfalls. The same as there are in any new legislation that’s introduced into any country,” he adds. “I think it’s all a part of that learning process, and that is part of growing up, if you like.”

“I am not sure that [the problems] are minor,” says Bipin Joshi, security director at Shield Security Services Ltd. “And recent publicity about vetting and other publicity in the past about officers illegally employed even on sensitive government buildings does not sound like growing pains.”

The SIA was supposed to raise standards in the security guard industry, which had not been good at self-governance, by requiring that individual officers have a license. To obtain a license from the SIA, applicants must undergo a criminal background screening and prove that they have some kind of certification endorsed by the SIA. Before the legislation, Ash says, there were “a lot of cowboys out there who would employ somebody straight out of an employment agency, put them in a uniform, and call them a security officer.”

Justin Bentley, the chief executive officer of the London-based International Professional Security Association, says a minority of companies were taking shortcuts and putting the public’s safety at risk for profit. “Often the directors of the business were people with undesirable backgrounds, criminal elements…and the better part of the industry did not want to be associated with that kind of business.”

Both Ash and Bentley say the scandal involving the SIA’s issuance of licenses to thousands who did not legally have the right to work in Britain was a misunderstanding. Initially, Bentley says, the licensing authority was only responsible for doing criminal background checks and ensuring that applicants had adequate training. Checking an applicant’s immigration status is, under U.K. law, the responsibility of the employer. The SIA has now incorporated the checks of an applicant’s eligibility to work in the country into the licensing process, Bentley says.

But only one week after SIA chief executive Mike Wilson resigned, the agency admitted that an additional 1,350 illegal immigrants were granted three-year licenses even though their right to work was due to expire within months.

“I think the Security Industry Authority has got to look to itself in how it does business. I think it’s also got to look at how it serves the public and the industry in general, but it’s not something that’s not achievable. I think they are 90 percent there,” Ash says.

Bentley says the real question, however, is whether targeting the individuals in the security industry, rather than the companies that employ them, was the best approach for the SIA.

SIA does certify private security firms through a program called the Approved Contractor Scheme (ACS). Under ACS, the SIA provides an approved status—a sort of seal of approval—to companies that meet certain criteria, but that program is voluntary, and some say the criteria, which do not have additional training requirements, do not require companies to raise the bar very high. To be considered for ACS status, a company must have 85 percent of its security staff licensed at all times, licensed directors who are deemed “fit and proper” by the SIA, and a good track record.

Joshi notes that loopholes remain. “The original problem in the industry was the actual management of some companies,” he says. “And, in some cases, it appears that those companies are still operating, except that the managers… have people with clean records acting as directors, and they go and sit on the periphery of the company, using the title of security consultant, but [they] are still involved in the industry.”

Some in the industry also worry about a shortfall of qualified professionals. Ash says the ACS could encourage cooperation by rewarding companies that are investing in the training of their officers. He says there are only 10 to 12 firms out of the 500 or so with ACS status that he would trust to look after his company’s assets; the others, he says, are performing only to the minimum level the legislation requires.

Joshi agrees that there is a need for companies to train supervisors and managers in leadership, resource management, and time management. “Most companies are doing just the minimum required to license their officers,” Joshi says.

The National Audit Office report provides six recommendations to the SIA, including remedies to both of these problems. It calls for the agency to register private security businesses in a low-cost, compulsory process separate from the ACS, and it calls on the agency to raise standards for the training of security officers by ACS-approved employers.

But overall, the audit report concludes that “the authority has introduced regulation into a previously unregulated sector effectively,” and that it “has delivered benefits in reducing the number of criminals engaged in security activities.”

Ash says there is definitely more work to be done: “I guess that we as an industry have got to hold our hands up and say, ‘We haven’t got it right yet.’”