The SIA in Sheffield: The ACS… and ‘The Future of The Hallmark’

Jody Parker
Jody Parker

SMT Online Web Exclusive

At Conference, ACS quality assurance manager Jody Parker and assistant director Andrew Shephard spoke of the need for change and the future of the hallmark. Brian Sims and Bobby Logue report.

Now quality assurance manager for the Security Industry Authority’s (SIA) Approved Contractor Scheme (ACS), Jody Parker – who led the first breakout session of the ‘Commitment To Regulation’ Conference in Sheffield – joined the Regulator eight years ago.

After a time, Parker moved to the Credibility Team (to keep an eye on any abuses of the ACS marque) and then, three years into her time with the SIA, became part of Andrew Shephard’s ACS operation whereupon she’s now involved with – among other projects – the Annual Review of said scheme.

In order to frame the future we must always learn from the past. It’s a maxim Parker must surely live by given that the first segment of her brilliant, crib note-free delivery in The Devonshire Room at the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel reviewed ACS achievements to date.

The 2006 Regulatory Impact Assessment for the ACS stated that the scheme was to be in place “to protect the public and to maintain and improve standards within the industry”. The $64,000 question is this: “Is there, in fact, scope for changing those primary objectives?”

Come October 2006, 280 companies had been accepted into the ACS. Here we are in October 2011 and that figure now stands at 711. In truth, there have only been 61 withdrawals since the ACS started.

The most significant growth has been witnessed in the micro business sector. Liquidations and mergers and acquisitions have also played their part in shaping where the scheme is today.

“The applications for ACS registration are not tailing off,” suggested Parker. “We still receive three or four new ones every week.

Nearly 130,000 people work for ACS companies. Those aforementioned operations in the micro sector apparently view the ACS as both “attainable and applicable”, and Parker was at pains to point out that the new scheme must have that in mind.

Buyer adoption of the ACS

In 2011, 85% of those security solutions buyers surveyed by the Regulator state that they require their security provider to be ACS registered. 57% of those buyers believe the ACS to be the most important accreditation benchmark (followed by ISO 9001 at 11%).

Given such healthy feedback, why is there a need for change within the ACS? “Following the Government’s announcement concerning the SIA,” stated Parker, “it was almost inevitable we would have to review the ACS and how it operates.”

At this point, Parker briefly recalled Baroness Ruth Henig’s speech at the 2010 SIA Stakeholder Conference.

“The purpose of the ACS has always been to differentiate between those companies that are approved and those that are not,” explained Parker, “but more and more companies are saying they want differentiation within the scheme itself.”

The basic aims for the future of the ACS and the hallmark are:

  • standards: they need to be maintained and improved
  • investment in the ACS: this must be recognised and built upon
  • business licensing: has to be complemented and supported
  • cost and administration burden: needs to be reduced
  • future Regulator: its role in shaping standards must be agreed upon

The impact of proposed business licensing will really start the ball rolling as far as changes to the ACS are concerned. The ‘fit and proper’ checks will transfer from the ACS to the business licensing remit, with the quality criteria carried into the voluntary hallmark scheme.

Emerging ideas include one that says all businesses providing security services under contract will need to be licensed, and that all companies presently sitting under the ACS umbrella will automatically qualify for business licensing.

The need for ratifying matters such as identity, legal status and financial probity, etc will all be part of the mix.

Possible conditions/criteria for business licensing may focus on who the people are that are involved with a given company, who’s running the business and insurance checks. Benchmarking would be against existing and relevant British Standards.

Route towards becoming a licensed business

In 2012, all changes to the ACS’ Terms and Conditions will be signposted and the scheme brought into line with business licensing. 2013-2014 marks the transition period. When Approved Contractors become compliant with business licensing requirements they’ll then hold two certificates.

Both schemes will still be voluntary at this point. In 2015, the ACS is then slated to transfer across to an industry-owned and managed hallmark scheme. Then, business licensing will become compulsory and the ACS hallmark remain voluntary.

According to Parker, the emerging proposals for the ACS include:

  • the ACS being developed to support the introduction of business licensing
  • the Regulator to transfer additional responsibility for the scheme’s development to the industry
  • LDNs – or their equivalent – could continue to be linked with a future hallmark

The longer term options would be for the:

(1) Regulator to endorse a business standard of some kind (this could be owned by the British Standards Institution, for example)

(2) Regulator to endorse an approval scheme by putting it out to tender

(3) Regulator to own an approval scheme in some format

(4) Regulator having no involvement whatsoever (and it may be the case that it’s left up to commercial operators themselves to take standards forward)

Questions raised, questions answered

With his colleague having done a splendid job of laying all the facts pertaining to the ACS before those in the room for subsequent assimilation, Andrew Shephard – assistant director for the ACS at the Regulator – then took charge of a fairly lengthy and detailed Question and Answer/general observation session.

In terms of preferred options as to how the ACS is taken forward, first to the microphone was BSIA CEO James Kelly (who’s also, of course, chairman of The Security Regulation Alliance).

“It’s extremely unusual for a Regulator to be faced with having to ensure compliance while at the same time being expected to continually uprate standards,” suggested Kelly.

“It’s highly likely the industry will look to develop the hallmark. The Regulator owning an approval scheme in some format is not consistent with the Blueprint for the future as it stands. It stands out like a sore thumb. Options 1 and 2 are more realistic. They sit squarely with the notion of lighter touch regulation.”

Having taken full account of Kelly’s views, Shephard then invited Skills for Security’s CEO David Greer to have his say on the matter.

“We need to ascertain some sense of how clients really view the ACS as a differentiator,” urged Greer. “Does the hallmark carry Government endorsement? Is that the kind of thing that provides the clients with what they want in terms of reassurance?”

In response, Andrew Shephard stated that surveys to date suggest clients like to see ACS compliance as it offers them, as buyers, a level playing field from where they can make an informed choice.

Tony Cockroft from Independent Contractor Security made a wry observation at this point, stating that he’s pleased the Regulator now appears to be doing what the BSIA asked it to do way back in 2004.

“We absolutely mustn’t go back to a situation where we don’t have a scheme in place,” he stressed. “Standards that have been set must surely be maintained.”

Next to command the roving microphone was Ken Hanslip from NSL. “In my experience, the local authorities’ view on the ACS is that it’s a due diligence arbiter. If we do go down the route of the industry taking charge of matters, will we then have to pay three times over? Once for the business licensing, once for the ACS and then another fee to the organisation running it? The Regulator ought to have an oversight here.”

Andrew Shephard also wanted to glean the audience’s views on implications that might arise from ending the ACS altogether.

First to put their hand up in a bid to answer this question was DS Gillian Gardner of the Strathclyde Police. Gardner mentioned a special conference held north of the border on Tuesday of this week, the aim of which was to get construction companies to buy into the whole ethos surrounding the ACS.

“There’s a lack of knowledge among security buyers in that sector,” asserted Gardner. “I’m worried that if the bar is set lower for company approval then the opportunities in front of organised crime gangs will rise. We’re currently working with the Association of British Insurers to see if compliance costs might be reduced in some way.”

Next, it was the turn of Graham Stanley – of training provider Griffin Protective Solutions UK – to say a few words.

Stanley’s company involves itself in consultancy work, helping third parties in their quest to win ACS registration.

“Would we now come under the radar for a mandatory business licence as a service provider?” he asked.

The answer to that question is still up for debate, but Shephard stated the current definition of the situation would beget an answer in the negative (on the basis that labour isn’t being supplied under contract).

What new content would audience members wish to see in an updated industry standard? Representing The Security Institute, Nick Evans put the cat among the pigeons in suggesting that if we keep going with the ACS, moving forward it needs to encompass the electronic side of the industry as well. “We need to adopt a more holistic view,” commented Evans.

CameraWatch CEO Paul Mackie fully endorsed Evans’ statement, particularly in relation to his own specialist area of CCTV (and Data Protection compliance with CCTV schemes).

Evans went on to state that the definition of what a security operative is and does isn’t clear enough, perhaps to the point of it having been ‘fudged’.

Andrew Shephard disagreed with the latter assertion. “My view is that there’s no fudging going on. The definition is clear. It’s an intelligence issue and an enforcement issue.”

When it comes to the transference of more responsibility for the ACS to industry, James Kelly opined that there could be more closer working – or even some kind of merger – between the SIA’s Strategy and Standards Group and The Security Regulation Alliance to take this point forward.

What benefits could be linked to the hallmark?

With Andrew Shephard asking delegates to give consideration to benefits that might be linked to the new voluntary hallmark, one suggestion from the throng was that all links to the ACS must be fully embedded in public sector contracts.

There’s massive pressure on margins, some would say due to larger guarding companies (who can afford to enter the tender process at a lower price) and smaller firms alike (who can go in at cost price due to their own low overheads).

The majority feeling around the room seemed to be that setting the benchmark for joining at too low a level wouldn’t be the best idea in the world.

Representing The Scottish Executive, John Nicholson mentioned the fact that the ACS is a mandatory requirement for all Government contracts north of the border.

“We take that view as there is no other way of differentiating on standards,” he said. “If the business licensing model is proven to be sufficiently robust, that could be taken to be the minimum standard with differentiation coming through the voluntary hallmark.”

Brian Sims is group content editor of UBM Live’s Security Portfolio and editor of Security Management Today Online

Bobby Logue is managing director of Interconnective and principal of Logue Corporate