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If there were no SIA

Mark Rowe writes: in my diary for Wednesday, March 2, 2003 it simply says ‘SIA launch’. That was the day the Security Industry Authority had its launch conference at the QE2 conference centre, over the road from Parliament.

It’s as good a day as any to mark 20 years of the SIA, as it plans to do, although other possible anniversary dates are already passed (the first SIA chair and chief exec were named in March 2002, and the law to make the SIA was the Private Security Industry Act 2001; my interview with that chair, Molly Meacher, went in the July 2002 print edition of Professional Security magazine).

What’s beyond doubt it that the SIA will celebrate 20 years, and however it marks the occasion – an event, a marketing campaign, a cake?! – it’s an indisputable part of the landscape. What if it had never happened, what might Britain and private security have looked like? Read on for my guess.

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Wednesday, March 6, 2024, QE2 Centre, Westminster: it’s 4pm and I am one of the few left in the big room where the SIA has launched. I have had my final conversations catching up with people. Over the speakers a pop song I vaguely know by Harry Styles is playing, that to my ears is a rip-off of a 1980s hit tune by Aha, Take On Me. That harking back to the past reminds me of how easily the SIA could have begun, more than 20 years ago, a sad thought because I am one of the few long enough in the industry to know that, or care.

It so nearly happened. A law nearly passed to form a regulator at the end of the first Tony Blair government in spring 2001, only to be crowded out by the long debate that ended in a law to ban fox hunting by hounds. The effort had to start all over again in the next Parliament. The 9-11 attacks happened, but the badging of security officers was not an obvious riposte to suicidal terrorists flying passengers jets into skyscrapers. The Labour MP Bruce George did keep campaigning, but there was always something else more important politically.

The fact was, to put it another way, that private security was not that important. Yes, the industry’s public figures argued that the sector needed professionalising, how wrong it was that any criminals could work in security or call themselves security consultants or run a security business. The occasional MP and journalist fumed (although anyone can do those jobs, too). The truth was that the problems did not fit together that well. Door staff being violent and needing training and vetting? What did that have to do with day-time securing of shops, offices and banks. And couldn’t councils handle doormen as part of pub and club licensing?

Bruce George died in 2020 so it won’t hurt him to say that the way he described the industry in Parliament – night-watchmen working long hours as if they were barely above the level of down and outs, warming their hands around braziers – did harm to the industry. The word-pictures that he painted may have been what was called for to make a good case to fellow MPs, but it was a travesty. Yes, some parts of manned guarding were as scandalous as that, in need of reform. But you could as well point to well-dressed security officers at work at jewellers in Hatton Garden and Regent Street in London, alert men (and women) dealing with lorry traffic at warehouse gatehouses, and diligent young men protecting convenience and department stores on every high street. That sheer variety of private security – what made it an attractive industry to work in and stay in – made it hard to make a case for a single regulator.

And what the industry may not want to hear now is that parts of it at least did not want the SIA. They would have resented being told how to do their business, and they would have resented the cost of it all – the paperwork for each officer, the inspection regime, the SIA salaries and office space. They would have had a point – where would the money have come from? Guarding customers? Good luck with asking! The cost would have come off industry margins. And while you generalise at your peril about security industry people, at least some in business were self-made blokes who believed in small government and resented paying taxes on anything – schools, hospitals – except maybe the roads that they roared up and down in their large, expensive cars.

As for how the SIA did come, you know that. The Manchester Arena suicide bomb of May 22, 2017 and the Inquiry from 2020 laid it out painfully forensically – the untrained, ill-equipped, ill-paid contracted stewards, security staff and CCTV control room operators. Who can say if they could have identified and stopped the terrorist? Still, it became obvious long before the Home Office announced the SIA, that such an Authority’s time had come.

Other things had happened – the Gatwick Airport closure of December 2018 after sightings of a drone, the disorder by hooligans outside and inside Wembley Stadium at the Euros final in July 2021. The sight of security staff flapping at Gatwick, and Wembley stewards floundering and in desperation kicking out as ticketless fans poured past them, was not only proof that security wasn’t working. Worse, it made everyone working in the industry a laughing stock.

The covid pandemic’s first lockdown of spring 2020 had thrown up cases of ordinary supermarket staff told to marshal queues of worried, frantic shoppers, and had been a sort of advertisement for security done properly, and regulated so that not just anyone could do it. However, as they were ordinary workers and no-one listened to them. It was as someone once said to me, some time in the 2000s, about the scandals every Friday and Saturday night of door staff doing an admittedly demanding job of managing drunken people on dark pavements and in shady nightclubs, and some routinely being unnecessarily violent. People got hurt. I was told, maybe if it happens to an MP’s daughter or son, then something will be done.

Police were long in favour of private security getting regulated, as they – ever more short-handed – sought to lean on other uniformed people they could trust. Yes, some councils carried on training and badging their local door staff, as Westminster had done in the 1990s. Some police forces embraced the Community Safety Accreditation Scheme (CSAS) to vet and train guard forces. As so often in life, just as on a busy street where cars are speeding, nothing gets done until a child gets run over, it took a tragedy to force the change.

One question still unanswered is what Scotland, independent since 2020 after their infamous yes-vote in 2014, will do; will they will set up a Scottish SIA, or come in with the rest of (what’s left of) the UK? That the SIA’s headquarters will be in Maryport in Cumbria – for Conservatives, prime ‘red wall’ former Labour territory – may not only be a nod to the Boris Johnson Government’s mania for ‘levelling up’, but, with a view across the Solway Firth to Scotland, a message to Holyrood.


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