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Where next for the ACS

The approved contractor scheme by the UK regulator the Security Industry Authority is to the SIA and the guarding sector, what the TV licence is to the BBC and the television-watching public; in both cases, all but a few accept that it should exist, but there’s forever grumbling and disagreeing about what form it should take, writes Mark Rowe.

In a talk to an online conference about security and estate management, by the University of Salford yesterday, the SIA’s director of licensing and standards Steve McCormick spoke of the SIA not wanting to rest on its laurels; and wanting to look at the next ten years of the scheme. That is partly in the very nature of the SIA, to forever look ahead, to draw up plans; hence its work on a business standards strategy, that he also mentioned. It shows also how central is the ACS, besides the badging of hundreds of thousands of individuals, to the SIA, both for income and to set standards in the contract guarding sector.

He reported that between 820 and 840 companies are SIA-approved, which contrasts with 3000 or 4000 (no-one is very sure) security companies in the UK (and to count UK security companies, you would have to define them, not least in the age of recruitment apps and employment agencies). However, as Steve McCormick added, those 800 or so ACS approved companies in terms of turnover do represent the majority of the sector.

What is the ACS? McCormick used the word ‘club’, of the ‘fit and proper’. Who is the ACS for? To stay with McCormick, he spoke of buyers: that is, of guarding services, who when making purchasing decisions can know that an ACS firm has integrity; is operating lawfully; and is well managed. As McCormick said, the ACS scheme – 15 years old now, about as old as the SIA – has led to significant professionalisation.

Why the perennial grumbling about the make-up of the ACS, and why review it, with at least the implication that you may change it? First, that number of approved firms. Not everyone is ever going to be satisfied, whatever the number. If there’s fewer, it becomes more of an elite; buyers can except to be getting something of higher quality for their money; except that more firms would be outside the scheme, whether because it’s too hard to attain its standard or it’s too costly. If many more gained ACS, or it became compulsory – and business licensing in the early to mid-2010s was due to happen, but came to nothing – grumblers would say that the ACS had lost meaning, or even credibility, if firms of higher and lower quality held the same accreditation.

To classify guarding firms would only acknowledge reality: that some buyers only want to give a guarding contract for the sake of their insurance, and are looking only for someone to provide a body in a uniform, for a minimum outlay; while some buyers want security officers to be the face of their building or organisation, to give good customer service, and the buyers are prepared to pay for that. And some buyers want a premium service but want to pay a minimum.

Second, then, the make-up of the ACS; how about setting grades? Like the NSI Guarding Silver, and Gold? The market has already offered some grading, such as the ACS Pacesetters group, independent of the SIA, open to the highest-scoring 15 per cent of ACS firms according to their audit score. The audit score, too, provides a measure of grading; except that the details may be lost on buyers, let alone the wider public.

It may be significant that McCormick mentioned the City Security Council (CSC), another group, of mainly City of London guarding contractors, set up to work with the police and other authorities in the City to better secure the Square Mile. The City may be the exception to the rule, as the financial world – at least before the City became near deserted in March 2020 due to the covid pandemic – was ready and able to pay somewhat higher pay rates to allow for guarding with more support and management, to allow developments such as the CSC. Although as Professional Security reported in its February edition when interviewing Neill Catton of CIS Security, the chair of the CSC, it’s open to ACS firms nationally and its idea for wider co-operation for public safety could work in other cities, or indeed abroad. It may also be significant that McCormick spoke so much of public safety; and that the extra and refresher training brought in by the SIA in April – detailed in the March print edition of Professional Security in an interview with McCormick – has a slant towards safety: first aid, counter-terrorism, safeguarding of the vulnerable.

In training of individuals, too, there is much scope for going beyond the basic training of a few days required to make an application for an SIA licence, for a door superviser and security guard, and offering accredited courses for specialist work, whether surveillance, or public space patrolling, whether on a campus or in a shopping centre or even, as Professional Security featured in the months before the pandemic, on high streets in the likes of Solihull, Salisbury, Winchester and Basingstoke.

Here there is indeed scope for grading the ACS, and acknowledging this recent development – with profound reputational and even legal implications for private security – of guarding public space that was once the preserve of the police. Again, the ACS would not be charting unknown territory, for there is already the CSAS (community safety accreditation scheme). Indeed, CSAS has been around since the Police Reform Act 2002, and is open to guard forces set up by local government or housing associations, besides contract guarding companies. However the SIA develops the ACS, then, it runs the risks of complicating the market. Set against that is the need – among buyers and the wider public that sees men and women doing security wearing the SIA badge – to approve contractors. The ACS like any scheme will always be two-fold: the granting of a standard to some implies that others are lacking. The ACS can never satisfy everyone.

More in the July 2021 print edition of Professional Security magazine.


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