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Liz France interview: part one

Ahead of her final full month as chair of the Security Industry Authority, we spoke to Liz France before her seven-year term ends on January 14.

The coronavirus pandemic inevitably has affected her, and our, 2020 – she was pencilled in to speak to two of Professional Security magazine’s Security TWENTY (ST) events, as in the previous few years (she’s pictured speaking at ST18 Harrogate in summer 2018; also in the photo is conference chairman Mike White).

Besides the pandemic adding to government business, lockdown’s made such things as recruiting more difficult, including her successor, though it’s well in hand; civil servants are due to interview a shortlist before they put forward names to Home Office ministers of those ‘appointable’, for the political appointment of a chair of the SIA, an ‘arm’s length body’ that regulates the private security sector by badging individuals and running the approved contractor scheme. Liz France’s hope is that her successor is identified before she leaves so that there can be some interchange.

Towards the end of a wide-ranging interview, she spoke of what many have found in 2020; that while Microsoft Teams and the like (Professional Security spoke to Liz via Teams) keeps us connected, you cannot beat the face to face (as at ST). “I do enjoy the public platforms, not just for getting up on the stage and talking about what we do; for the interaction in the margins.

“You can have a virtual conference but what you like is the interplay in the margins that getting to know people that feeling for what it’s like.” She has carried on chairing a quarterly stakeholders’ meeting of industry association figures and others over the phone, instead of in person, usually in London, ‘and it’s been good to do, but I very much feel if I didn’t already know these people, it would be difficult for an incoming chair not just in my role, across public and private sectors, anybody coming new to a job, it’s really quite difficult, and quite different. I am quite privileged that I knew the key players before we were put into this totally virtual world, because I think it makes it easier; we all just have to take the positives, the things we can do; as long as we can top it up in the real world.”

Is it retirement for Liz France? It’s ‘gradual retirement’, she replied; she’s had a range of non-executive roles since her years as a civil servant, which date back to 1971. Being SIA chair has been her main one of late; she had as many as six roles at one time; now it’s down to three, and as their time ends, she’s not actively looking for anything else. She’s become used to such fixed terms – in her diary for January 14 it says ‘term ends’ – ever since in 1994 she became the information commissioner. While she had to do her homework when she applied for the SIA job, and she admits she was not up to date earlier, she could claim a connection with private security further back than most; ‘when I was a civil servant in the mid-1980s I was head of crime prevention and police operations, [Conservative MP] Sir John Wheeler was pressing ministers to look at regulation of the private security industry. In the late 1980s he was in and out of our office, trying to talk to ministers about the need to regulate the private security industry; and that was from a BSIA stand-point.”

Then, as still, private security is a quite peculiar UK business in that industry figures call publicly for more regulation, not less. She recalls that in 2013 she was impressed with the progress since the Private Security Industry Act came in; though as she adds, the SIA didn’t begin actual work until the mid-2000s. The ten years or so to 2013 in regulation terms were not many; but ‘there had already been huge changes’; and change has continued. It was genuinely worthwhile to speak to Liz France to appreciate the longer perspective; in a word, the industry and the SIA have matured, she says (‘I think we have grown up together’). Once the SIA was there to protect the public from the private security industry; now, as seen during the pandemic, the industry is there to protect the public.

As all that suggests, change in the industry implies that the SIA has to change also; and for that the one has to know the other. “Because we have matured together we now have a much, I think, much more productive relationship; the constructive dialogue between the industry and the regulator I think has developed hugely over the time I have been there.”

She raised a recurring topic; of ‘the voice of the industry’; should there be one (rather than several)? To leave Liz for a minute, in the early 2000s you had the joint security industry council, JSIC that was rather on its last legs as the SIA came in; the BSIA ruled the commercial roost in association terms; but there’s always been other, disparate voices; yet private security is disparate; it doesn’t lend itself to a British Medical Association or prison officers or fire brigade union monolith (which has its downside in any case). Rather, the Security Commonwealth has developed as an umbrella group.

What matters is, as Liz says, a ‘professional approach’. “I would say the biggest change over seven years has been that professionlisation, that pride in the work of the industry, reflected and I hope magnified by a regulator that encourages best practice … if we go right up to date and look at this crisis, an industry where the chief executive [Ian Todd] was able to talk to the Home Secretary [Priti Patel] and very quickly say that the private security industry had an important part to play.” And as industry figures have made much of, some in private security were designated ‘key workers’.

The SIA has hailed work by ‘heroes’ and the BSIA has run a ‘hidden workforce’ campaign to publicise the sector. “And I know it’s corny to talk about this paradigm shift from the regulator being there to protect the industry from the public, and now the industry protects the public, I know it’s very trite, but it’s true, that that is the change of emphasis that we have seen.”

A change in work implies a change in standards (as the SIA sets) and training required to apply for the SIA badge; and here Liz France mentioned first aid, one of the requirements coming in. That implies that the SIA is there to do more than, in her vivid phrase, ‘just to turn the handle and issue licences and stop people doing things’; ‘we have got to be a risk-based regulator’. That’s true for any UK regulator, not only the SIA. A grumble among SIA badge-holders and mainly guarding contractors paying for ACS status has been about enforcement; what is the SIA doing about wrong-doers; on that she said ‘I hope you think we publicise our prosecutions quite clearly to show we are doing that, but we also need to use our skills and ability to help to improve standards; to recognise that this is an area where a lot of young people can go through useful training whether they stay in the industry or not.”

Here Professional Security raised something that keeps nagging like an aching tooth, and indeed Liz France has invariably spoken of it when at an ST conference – her last has proved to be ST19 London in November 2019; could the 2001 PSIA Act do with a top-up? For any industry has changed in the last 20 years making its laws behind the times – whether small but telling use of language, such as ‘manned guarding’, which the SIA prefers not to use; or wide changes in tech, such as apps that recruit ‘gig’ workers, who may be classed as self-employed rather than working for a door security contractor. Commonplace now; undreamt of then.

As a long-time civil servant, hers is the voice of experience when she replies: “You don’t get legislative opportunities very often unless you are in an area that demands it because of national priorities.” She recalled the time-line before the 2001 Act; the years of consultation in the 1990s (‘these things take time’). She stressed that it’s not for her but for ministers to decide if a change of legislation is required. “Victoria Atkins [the Home Office junior minister] is very clear she will take that decision but it is our [SIA] job to provide evidence … it’s for us to show ministers where there are things, purely by the passage of time, sometimes by changes in the world, some small things like definitions.” Liz France closed that by recalling the triennial review of the SIA (which, we might add, the Home Office took what felt like a long time to reply to); in the end the Home Office took the view there was no immediate need for change.

Meanwhile as Liz France says, the SIA works with the law it has; ‘we have got to be imaginative in our use of it, within the law’.

It may be significant that here she mentioned the Manchester Arena Inquiry into the May 2017 suicide bombing. To leave Liz for a minute, the Home Office early in 2020 unusually said that it would go out to consultation on a legal requirement for venues to mitigate security threats, also known as Martyn’s Law. Might the political need for the Home Office to respond, once the Inquiry hears all the evidence – including from SIA senior staffers – and publishes its findings, mean that private security gets its parliamentary time?

To turn to the day job of the SIA; the issuing of licences; click here for part two of the interview.


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