20 AUGUST 1988, Page 9


Michael Trend investigates the

top . . . and the bottom of the private security business

`NO NAMES, no pack-drill', said my contact, Bob, as he eased himself into the passenger seat of my car, 'you can call me Jim.' I observed, as politely as I could, that this would be rather pointless as I already knew that his name was Bob. 'Who told You that?' It had stung him badly, I could see, for his business is security and he felt that he could only talk to me on terms of anonymity. 'I'd still rather you called me Jim,' he said rather lamely. 'OK Bob,' I said, and we were off.

This opening ex- change was to set the pattern for the day as we visited a number of sites in east London to ex- amine the work of the private security industry on the ground'. These are boom days for the Industry, with a large number of new firms springing up. Why was this, I wondered? Bob explained that was part of the manifestation known as the 'growth of the service industries'. I'm a service industry, right?' Yes, I assured him that he was. 'And We guard other service Industries that are shooting up around here like mushrooms as well as some of the old metal-bashers. Plenty of money, every- where.'

He explained that the small companies did not want to organise their own security forces and that even many of the bigger ones were now putting out their security work to contract. He hoped too that in the near future there would be the prospect of privatisations' — leading to more work for him and his many friends who had entered the private security field in recent times. I asked him what sort of privatisations he had in mind and his reply clearly indicated that he had his eyes on the estate patrols that the local council ran at 'ruinous expense to the rate-payers — that's you and me', he added, just like a Tory politician at the Party Conference. But would a local authority really give such work — even though keeping an eye on the estates was a `piece of cake', according to my guide — to an outfit like Bob's? 'Depends on who you know at the Town Hall,' he said cheerfully.

What Bob really wanted to show me was the great diversity of the security arrange- ments in his part of the world. We first saw a lock-up yard, 'of the traditional type haulage company, fleet of lorries, pressing need for nocturnal security'. I pointed out that two rather battered lorries was hardly a 'fleet', but Bob was not going to be put off. He was the sort of man, I felt, who . could probably sell a burglar alarm to Scotland Yard.

`No, you've missed the point I'm trying to make entirely. What security systems do you see here?' I told him that I could see none — unless one counted a few strands of barbed wire and a rather mangy-looking Alsatian. 'Exactly', he replied, 'it's the old unfed-dog routine. It's so old-fashioned. Asking for trouble. Lots of barking but no good at all. We could go and buy a juicy steak from the butchers and, wallop, we're in. The only thing it'll bite is a kid who can't afford the meat.' He gave me the look which could only mean 'Would you like it if we went and bought a juicy steak from the butchers and, wallop?' No, on the whole, I thought not.

We saw high-security vans zipping about all over the place, carrying cash — 'and valuables', said Bob, with a mysterious note of respect in his voice — and many tough-looking men in a number of diffe- rent tough-looking uniforms. Finally, we stopped to admire a particular van with its driver. Bob said, 'Nothing beats the man in uniform. That's the state of the art.'

The man in question was, I suspected, one of Bob's own irregulars. And I felt that the boss was probably prouder of the van and uniform than of the man inside them. How, I asked him, could this be the 'state of the art'; how was this man in any real way different from the watchman of old sitting at his merry brazier? 'It's the uni- form, you see. Nothing beats the modern uniform — a nice blue serge with some orange or yellow piping. Shiny badges are good too. It gives the client confidence. Everyone wants it, we can't keep up with demand at the moment. 'And you are making a good living out of it?' I asked as casually as possible. He made it clear — in colourful language — that he was doing very nicely, thank you.

So I went to talk to one of the customers of the security industry at a local furniture factory. `You won't mention my name, will ye..:7' he began. I felt like saying that if it was all right with him I would call him Jim. He admitted to having a contract with a firm like Bob's. When the boss of it first came to see him he had brought a man in uniform, and yes, he felt that had been quite reassuring. But now he believed that he was hardly getting his money's worth and it was a 'pretty pricy business'. The central alarm system had been activated only once and it had taken the security firm six hours to respond. Now the police say they are going to charge for this service and he had no doubt that the cost of that would be passed on to him.

Much of the advice that he had been given had been 'pretty useless'. He had a number of dummy alarms put up and had once had a dummy video camera that moved itself around in a random fashion but somebody had stolen that — must have thought it was worth something. His favourite story, though, had been when the security firm had sent round its 'consultant' whose sole advice had been to park the fork-lift truck up behind the main gates so that if anyone broke in through them in a vehicle 'they would get it in the throat'.

He had sometimes been working late at night when the 'patrol' had come round, but he had not been impressed. All they did was 'peer over the wall and push off again; and the noise that their car stereo made in the street was terrible'. He had once talked to the men in the van and they had, in his view, 'severe morale problems'. They were very badly paid — about £90 a week basic — and quite untrained for their work; turnover of staff was very high, they had said; it wasn't at all unusual for some people just to do it as a fill-in job lasting only a few weeks. The uniform, however, came with the job, and they would be fired if they didn't wear it.

This had all been rather exciting and I headed with some relief for sedate Queen Anne's Gate and the offices of Mr David Fletcher, the chief executive of the British Security Industry Association. It was a different world altogether. The BSIA is made up from all the big boys in the field and has a very strict admission policy for its member companies which, among other things, demands that members are insured for public and contractual liabilities. As I held the list of these I looked in vain among the Securicors, Chubbs and Britan- nias for Bob's company. The BSIA's director-general is John Wheeler JP, MP, a former assistant prison governor; the chair- man is Sir Colin Woods KVCO, CBE, QPM, a former deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police before being appointed HM Chief Inspector of Consta- bulary for England and Wales; and one of the BSIA's own two inspector-generals, James Hargadon, retired from the Met with the rank of chief superintendent in 1979. (The companies which make up the BSIA employ many ex-policemen on a second career; while, one suspects, many of those outside its bounds provide work for some of the policemen's former `clients'.)

Mr Fletcher ran through the work of his association. It covers the overt security private sector — not private eyes, bugging and so forth, nor such exotic areas as data-processing fraud. The work of its members falls into three broad categories: guarding, the movement of cash, and security systems — `widgits, that sort of thing', Mr Fletcher explained, as unforth- coming as Bob had been on the sensitive subject of the more technically advanced tools of the trade.

When things go wrong, he explained, especially when after a robbery a security officer turns out to be a 'bandit' after all, the press makes a meal of it. He sighed, and looked at me with a mild suspicion in his eyes. The most rigorous checks were made on the backgrounds of those ap-

It must have been something we ate.' plying to join security forces, going back 20 years into their work history, with all the paper-work having to be seen. But his firms employ some 40,000 men and the vetting procedures take place while a probationary period is worked through. Mr Fletcher implied that this period is when the 'bandits' could occasionally slip through. 'Perhaps the press put some of these people up and manufacture quite predictably trivial stories . . .', he sug- gested in a velvet-glove-iron-fist sort of way.

I was more concerned about the broader issues of the regulation and control of his industry. Mr Fletcher told me that the parts of the industry that he could speak for were in favour of self-regulation; BSIA firms did not want to see either a police regulatory authority or a new quango set up to deal with with licensing and regula- tion. Above all the BSIA were concerned to set standards for the industry, with detailed written specifications of practices and procedures. As the City of London has shown, self-regulation can mean no effec- tive regulation at all. But I was impressed that in the case of the BSAI self-regulation was sensible.

This too was the view of the Home Office when I spoke to them. Following the publication of a discussion paper in 1979, The Private Security Industry, their view has been that the self-regulatory route is the best way forward. It is implied that there are enough checks and balances in the market place to ensure that bad or corrupt firms will go to the wall, and that companies and individuals who employ security firms must take the responsibility for their decisions. The normal course of the law would deal with those who got out of line. When I asked if they did not think that something ought to be done about the — how should we put it? — 'lower' end of the market, they replied blandly that quali- ty, efficiency and competitiveness would sort things out.

I knew, however, that this would be news to Bob, so I went back to him to see what he made of the Home Office's prog- nosis. Why didn't he apply for membership of the BSIA? There was a, long pause before he told me that there might be problems about this. Why was that, I asked? He replied with engaging frank- ness; 'Well, this is an industry of poachers and gamekeepers, and — it has to be said — it is sometimes rather hard to tell them apart.' I imagined he was thinking about the thorough-going vetting procedure. `Along those lines', he told me. We were speaking of matters in the far distant past, he emphasised. And what about written specifications and assurances of quality? Yes, he might think about these. What of the close scrutiny and training of his staff? That, too, he might do something about soon. And how, notwithstanding these things, was business? Still booming, thank you.