From tackling crime to guarding trains, private firms are filling roles public services once had. But it’s a dangerous business…
Michelle Bailey has endured countless scrapes. The most recent, just before Christmas, involved an acutely intoxicated woman repeatedly threatening her with violence. Bailey, the 48-year-old managing director of Barnsley-based Active Response Security Services, talked her down, as always. “You need to keep very calm. So far no one has ever pulled a knife, thank god,” she said.
Tudor Simionov was not so fortunate. About 5.30am on New Year’s Day the 33-year-old was providing security for a central London party when it was stormed by gatecrashers. Attempting to fight them off, Simionov was stabbed. By 6.05am he was dead. Two months earlier he had left Romania for what his fiancée called “a better life”.
His death has drawn attention to an industry once confined to nightclub bouncers and security guards, but which has quietly grown and diversified – so much so that it now helps prop up a significant chunk of public services. Some call it the UK’s “fourth emergency service”.
Karen Bermingham of the Security Industry Authority (SIA), a regulatory agency linked to the Home Office, said the trade has become vital to tackling crime. “We’re the eyes and ears on the ground and we are spotting and reporting cases where, for instance, there is grooming, we’re kind of like an emergency service,” she said.
As violent crime increases and police numbers dwindle, private guards have been hired to fill the security vacuum, along with CCTV operators, cash transit specialists and close protection officers. The private security sector has been trained to help solve some of the most complex crimes, including child exploitation, along with assisting the National Crime Agency (NCA) and the intelligence agencies.
Increasingly, its operatives are also trained in counter-terrorism, feeding directly into the government’s National Counter Terrorism Security Office. The spate of terror attacks throughout 2017, particular the bombing inside the Manchester Arena, further emphasised the importance of security guards in preventing possible atrocities.
The industry’s broadening responsibilities are reflected in its growth. During 2017-2018 there were 143,894 applications for individual licences to operate in the security industry compared to 110,437 the previous year.
The rise consolidates an already substantial industry. There are currently 386,657 licence holders, of whom just under 10% are women. By comparison, there are currently about 146,000 police officers in the UK.
Closer analysis of the security trade reveals 239,134 licence holders are involved in “door supervision”, of whom 24,034 are women. Most door staff are aged 26-45 with more than 3,000 over 65.
The next most popular role is that of security guard, with 68,715 in the UK. The least female friendly sector is close protection – bodyguarding – with just 773 women out of 14,148 individuals currently licensed.
Rick Mounfield, chief executive of the Security Institute, which has almost 3,000 “security professional” members, says the wage spectrum is vast, ranging from zero-hours contracts paying £10 an hour to salaries of up to £500,000 for a talented “ethical hacker”.
Mounfield said the size of the sector should come as no surprise. “Security is probably the second oldest employment stream there is, right up there with prostitution. Everybody has needed security since we lived in caves.”
Mounfield hailed the industry’s multiculturalism and its ability to draw recruits such as Simionov. “It needs to be multicultural, to reflect society. You need cultural awareness if you are going to deconflict and manage physical intervention,” he said.
Along with the erosion in police numbers the transformation of the UK’s shopping habits has also helped drive expansion. Man Commercial Protection, based in the West Midlands, has grown through the popularity of online shopping and the need to patrol the mammoth warehouses where online retailers store goods.
Laura McCarthy, office manager for the firm, describes demand for their services as “manic”. She also says council cutbacks have meant they safeguard train and bus depots in the region.
“Police and councils now look to outsource to a security company, we have that level of training and with new clients we are just trying to meet demand,” said McCarthy.
Five years ago her firm employed 300 people, now it has almost 1,000.
Driving part of the growth is the Police and Security Group Initiative, backed by Scotland Yard but targeted by some critics who claim it is privatising policing by stealth.
Mounfield said the agreement, introduced to “promote collaboration between police forces and the private security industry”, transparently transferred obligations once carried out by police.
Among the responsibilities that police can officially hand over to the private sector, roles include “neighbourhood wardens, hospital security guards, park wardens, shopping mall guards and train guards”.
Mounfield said: “The private security sector is certainly filling some of the gaps that were once lower-level policing tasks.”
Simionov was among those seemingly proud to join the industry, a first step on the UK job ladder as he prepared for married life. A day after his death, his partner, Madalina Anghel, shared a brief note on Facebook: “The loss is impossible. It is hard for me to find the right words at this time.”