Public safety is a paramount concern for venues and event organisers, especially in the wake of recent tragic events that have exposed the vulnerabilities and challenges of the private security industry in the UK. In this post, we will examine how the Security Industry Authority (SIA), a public body sponsored by the Home Office, regulates the private security industry. The SIA is under pressure to respond to these incidents and improve standards, training, and collaboration in the sector. The SIA faces the greatest challenge to its authority in 20 years, and how these coming months evolve may define the effectiveness, and perhaps the future, of the organisation.
The Manchester Arena terrorist attack, which killed 22 people and injured hundreds more in May 2017, was the subject of a public inquiry led by Sir John Saunders. The inquiry found that there were "serious shortcomings" in the security provided the contractor appointed by the arena operator. The shortcomings identified by the inquiry of security contractor and staff included:
- poor communication
- lack of training
- inadequate risk assessment
- insufficient checks on bags and people entering the venue
The inquiry also criticised the Security Industry Authority (SIA), the statutory body responsible for licensing and regulating private security operatives, for its lack of oversight and enforcement.
Another incident that highlighted the risks and challenges faced by the private security industry was the crushing incident at the O2 Brixton Academy on 18 June 2022. Three people were critically injured (crushed) when a surge of fans without tickets entered the building foyer. Sadly, two of those injured died in hospital, Rebecca Ikumelo, who was attending the concert and Gaby Hutchinson, 23, a security guard, who was employed by an SIA-approved contractor.
These two tragic events have exposed vulnerabilities and weaknesses of the security industry in the UK, which employs more than 400,000 people and generates more than £9 billion annually. They have also raised questions about the effectiveness and accountability of the SIA, which was established in 2003 to improve standards and professionalism in the sector. The reports have prompted calls for urgent reforms and improvements in the regulation and oversight of the private security industry, as well as greater investment and support for its workforce.
In the UK, we rely on the private security industry to augment policing at private venues, major events, and town and city centres. Often, and incorrectly, labelled as ‘doormen’ the private security industry now employs a range of individuals from diverse backgrounds and duties. Patrolling town centres (private open spaces) dealing with anti-social behaviour, deterring petty theft and loss prevention is now a very public face of private security. An article titled “They look like police, but are they? The worrying rise of Britain’s pseudo-cops” ran in a UK newspaper in May 2023, one of several high-profile and often scathing review of the private security industry in the UK.
The demand for private security has been growing at an alarming rate for more than 12 years, tracking closely with the cuts to UK policing resources. Several leading figures in policing and security in the UK directly attribute the rapid growth of the sector to the period of austerity policing has faced for more than a decade, with limited officers and resources to meet the growing public demand. Private venues, shopping centres and town centres once patrolled by uniformed police officers are now patrolled by security staff wearing high-visibility clothing to deter criminal activity and report or intervene when it occurs.
Now, in a bid to distance themselves from the stigma associated with ‘Security’ some UK businesses are rebranding to Event Management. Offering security staff with SIA accreditation, along with stewards this sector is in full bloom in the UK, with more than an 11% rise in event companies registered between 2021 and 2022. Whatever branding used, the effect is the same for venues and events – the venue operator is contracting the provision of public safety, security and the safe operation of the event to a third party.
The inquiry found the venue-appointed “trusted crowd management, venue and event security specialist” had failed to adequately train and supervise its staff, who were mostly young and inexperienced. The inquiry also found the contractor had failed to conduct proper risk assessments, implement effective search policies, communicate with other agencies, and respond to suspicious behaviour. The inquiry highlighted several missed opportunities to prevent or mitigate the attack, such as challenging or reporting the bomber, who had been hiding in a CCTV blind spot for an hour before detonating his device.
The inquiry also found that the SIA had failed to ensure the contractor complied with its licensing conditions and codes of conduct. The inquiry noted that the SIA had not inspected the contractor since 2013, despite receiving complaints and intelligence about its performance. The inquiry also noted that the SIA had not taken any action against contractor or its staff after the bombing, despite finding evidence of breaches of licence conditions.
The SIA accepted the findings of the inquiry and apologised for its shortcomings. It also committed to implementing a number of recommendations to enhance its regulatory role, such as:
- Developing a new code of conduct for licence holders and approved contractors
- Introducing a mandatory counter-terrorism training module for all licence applicants and renewals
- Reviewing its licensing criteria and processes to ensure they are fit for purpose
- Strengthening its intelligence-sharing and partnership-working with other agencies and stakeholders
- Increasing its inspection and enforcement activities to deter and detect non-compliance
The SIA also acknowledged that it needs to work more closely with event organisers, venue owners, security providers and local authorities to ensure that public safety is prioritised and that best practices are followed.
A report by Lambeth Council, which owns the venue, found that there were several factors that contributed to the incident, such as:
- Inadequate planning and preparation by the event organiser and security provider
- Insufficient staffing levels and deployment of security personnel
- Lack of crowd management and control measures
- Failure to follow emergency procedures and protocols
- Poor communication and coordination between security staff and other agencies
The report also made several recommendations to prevent similar incidents from happening again, such as:
- Conducting thorough risk assessments and contingency plans for every event
- Ensuring adequate staffing levels and training for security personnel
- Implementing effective crowd management and control measures
- Establishing clear lines of communication and command between security staff and other agencies
- Providing adequate medical support and equipment for emergencies
The SIA expressed its condolences to the family of the deceased security guard and said that it would cooperate with any investigation into the incident. It also said that it would review its Approved Contractor Scheme (ACS) to ensure that it reflects the current standards and expectations of the private security industry.
ACS is a voluntary accreditation scheme recognising security providers that meet certain criteria of quality and performance. The scheme aims to raise standards in the industry by encouraging good practice, innovation, and customer service. The SIA grants ACS approval to security providers that demonstrate compliance with a set of standards based on four key areas: strategy, processes, people and results.
The SIA said that it would consult with stakeholders on how to improve the ACS standards and processes, as well as how to increase awareness and recognition of the scheme among customers, consumers and regulators. It also said that it would explore ways to incentivise ACS membership and reward excellence in service delivery.
In September 2023, the SIA celebrated its 20th anniversary with a national conference that brought together representatives from across the private security industry. The theme of the conference was '20 years of the Private Security Industry Act: building, learning, and adapting to new challenges in supporting public safety'. The conference provided an opportunity for participants to reflect on the achievements and challenges of the past two decades, as well as to discuss current issues and future trends affecting the sector.
Some of the key topics covered at the conference included:
- Raising standards of professionalism and training in the industry
- Protecting the public from risks such as terrorism, cybercrime and fraud
- Promoting equality, diversity and inclusion in the industry
- Enhancing collaboration and partnership-working among stakeholders
- Adapting to changing customer needs and expectations
Keynote speakers at the conference included the Home Secretary, the SIA Chief Executive and other prominent figures from the security industry and UK Government. Speakers emphasised the importance of public safety as the core purpose and value of the private security industry and praised the contributions and achievements of security operatives and providers in protecting people and property. They also acknowledged the challenges and difficulties faced by the industry, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, and expressed their support and commitment to working with the SIA and the sector to overcome them.
During the pandemic, many experienced and qualified security operators were made redundant or had no opportunity to work. Much of this was caused by the infamous ‘zero-hours contracts’ which exist between many security firms and their representatives, and many security operators are self-employed or working in the sector as a second job. The need for security operators increased as vaccination centres were established, however many of these contracts did not require the qualified level of staff most affected by the pandemic. In the wake of the pandemic, we are told the UK private security industry is struggling with one of the worst skills and recruitment shortages its ever faced. Many of the experienced, qualified operators who would devote their own time to training and gaining new skills were forced to find more reliable employment post-pandemic.
The SIA said that it was proud of its 20-year journey and that it was looking forward to continuing its work in regulating and supporting the private security industry in the UK. It also said that it was grateful for the feedback and input from its stakeholders and that it would use them to inform its future plans and actions.
However, earlier this year the SIA was rocked by allegations of corruption, including at Brixton Academy. The claims were made on a BBC File on 4 programme in which alleges security staff took bribes to allow people to enter without tickets and/or exceed the capacity of a venue.SIA representatives have said the organisation is assisting police with their investigation.
The UK Government has said that it will consider the recommendations from both reports and take action to ensure public safety and confidence in the security industry. The SIA has said that it will review its processes and procedures and work with stakeholders to address the issues raised by both reports. The security industry has said that it will cooperate with any changes and initiatives that will enhance its performance and reputation.
However, some critics have argued that these measures are not enough and that more radical changes are needed.
Some have suggested that the SIA should be abolished or replaced by a new regulator with more powers and resources. Some have also suggested that security companies should be subject to more stringent vetting and accreditation processes, as well as more frequent inspections and audits. Some have also suggested that security staff should receive better pay and conditions, including contracts and defined employment parameters, benefits, and entitlements, as well as more training and development opportunities. Currently, the training structure has mandatory modules for an individual to obtain or renew an SIA license, and the schedule requires several sequential days often organised by a training provider outside the local area. The cost of the training is borne by the individual and often they are not earning an income during this period.
These suggestions do have merit, but they also face challenges and limitations. Abolishing or replacing the SIA will create a power vacuum, legal and practical difficulties, as well as resistance from some stakeholders. Vetting and accrediting security companies may be costly and time-consuming, as well as prone to errors and inconsistencies. Inspecting and auditing security companies may be intrusive and disruptive, as well as dependent on the availability and quality of data and evidence. Improving the pay and conditions of security staff may be expensive and unsustainable, as well as dependent on the demand and supply of the market.
Therefore, while reforms and improvements are necessary and welcome, they are not sufficient or guaranteed to prevent or reduce the risks and harms associated with the security industry. There is no simple or quick fix for the complex and multifaceted challenges that the sector faces. What is needed is a holistic and collaborative approach that involves all stakeholders, including the government, the regulator, the industry, the workforce, the clients, and the public. Only by working together can we ensure that the security industry in the UK is fit for purpose and fit to keep the public safe in the future.