NB: THIS TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A TRANSCRIPTION UNIT RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT: BECAUSE OF THE POSSIBILITY OF MIS-HEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY, IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS ACCURACY.
Britain's Protection Racket
Reporter: Samantha Poling
RECORDED FROM TRANSMISSION: BBC ONE
DATE: MONDAY 21 JANUARY 2008
JEREMY VINE: Hello, I'm Jeremy Vine and this is Panorama. Who's watching the people who are watching us?
CHIEF SUP ANDY COOKE: People have had guns put to their head. We've seen extremely serious arson attacks where an awful lot of damage has been caused.
VINE: It's an industry tainted by threats and intimidation.
ANONYMOUS CALLER: So you're going behind my back and trying to get my work so at the end of the day f*** off.
VINE: And where it seems people with serious criminal records feel right at home.
ROBERT WRIGHT: This is what I do. This is my job.
VINE: The security industry is all around us, from CCTV in our cities to bouncers in our pubs to guards in our schools and hospitals. It's always had a criminal element but we were told this was being driven out by a tough new regulator. Then it emerged that 11,000 licences could have been issued to illegal immigrants. Well now Panorama has uncovered more evidence that all is far from well.
POLING: Britain's security industry is worth seven billion pounds a year but it's not all clean money. Four years ago I exposed how serious criminals were controlling some of Scotland's largest security companies. It was a dangerous world which didn't stop at the border. Across the UK contracts were being obtained through threats and violence. The government set out the security industry authority, or SIA to clean up and regulate the industry. Now doormen and bouncers must be properly trained, and owners of security firms vetted and licensed. But there have been problems. In December it emerged the authority had mistakenly awarded licences to 11,000 illegal immigrants. But now I've been contacted by a senior official of the SIA's 120 strong team. He's worried that this problem is just the beginning, that his own department is losing the war against the criminal elements in the security industry. He's the most senior member of the SIA to speak out about his worries, and it's not a decision that he's taken lightly. This guy works every day with the criminals who operate within the security industry. He's agreed to speak to me on the condition we hide his identity. My insider feels weaknesses in the new legislation are being exploited by those it was designed to put out of business and there's nothing he can do about it.
Words of SIA insider, spoken by actor
Frustrated probably is the easiest and simplest word to use because when you see the loopholes being used to the extent that they are, you do realise how ineffective you're being. People within the industry know full well what's happening and wonder allowed sometimes why it is that the SIA has not shown itself to be capable of tackling some of these areas of concern head on.
POLING: According to my insider one city in particular is bedevilled by these rogue security firms. He suggests I take a closer look. Behind me is Liverpool, European City of Culture 2008, and that means millions of pounds have been poured into its regeneration. But it's also home to a serious criminal underworld which has been muscling in on the city's building boom and causing headaches for the police.
Chief Supt ANDY COOKE
People have had guns put to their head. We've seen extremely serious arson attacks where an awful lot of damage has been caused to new build housing estates, and housing estates as well that are regenerating this city and making it better for people to live here. These people seriously affect the standard of living of everybody.
POLING: In Liverpool few people know better than Church of England vicar Shannon Ledbetter just how intimidating these rogue security firms can be. She runs the Liverpool branch of Habitat for Humanity, an international charity based in Toxteth, one of the poorest districts in the entire country.
Rev Dr SHANNON LEDBETTER
It's a unique charity in that it is a charity that builds homes for low income families or families living in substandard accommodation, and they have to put a certain number of hours into building their own homes.
POLING: In other words putting something back into society. Some of the city's security firms though were not so public spirited.
LEDBETTER: We had a number of incidents where individuals would come onto the site and talk to the construction manager.
POLING: Saying what to them?
LEDBETTER: We want to be your security firm.
COOKE: It's all very much implied in the visits that they do and the letters that they write and their approaches to the companies themselves. So there won't be any direct level of intimidation, it'll just be quite simply: This is our area and we'll provide your security.
POLING: Or else...?
COOKE: That threat is often left open.
POLING: Shannon Ledbetter refused the generous offers of assistance from these security firms and the response was swift.
LEDBETTER: Well early in the morning I had a phone call from one of our staff who had come to site early and he just said: "There's been a fire." I got to where the houses should have been and it was a feeling that's hard to describe because it was devastating for me personally but it was also representation of the destruction of hundreds of people's efforts. It was gut-wrenching really.
POLING: Merseyside police were in no doubt the fire was arson and the perpetrators were from a security firm. Despite the existence of the security industry authority, criminal activity was flourishing. The police and the SIA decided to get tough. They launched Operation Seahawk targeting rogue firms across the city.
COOKE: We were asked to pay for blackmail for extorting money from other security companies as part of our covert approach to what we do. We recover firearms, recover drugs, we've recovered enormous amounts of money in assets from these companies.
POLING: Despite the SIA's aim of eliminating criminality from the industry, police discovered the majority of the city's security staff they investigated remained unlicensed. The rogue firms were operating as if the SIA legislation simply didn't exist.
COOKE: They're criminals and if they continue to be criminals we'll target them and we'll convict them.
Merseyside Police footage
POLING: The success of Operation Seahawk has seen a number of local firms complying with SIA licensing rising from just 40% last year to more than 90% today. But Merseyside police acknowledge the intimidation tactics used against Shannon Ledbetter remain a feature of the local industry.
To see these tactics first hand we've set up our own security firm. Our would-be security guards will go round handing out cards trying to persuade businesses to switch their security contracts to us. Later we'll see what kind of reaction we get from potential customers and competitors. The SIA were supposed to clean up the industry. Over the last four years its revoked or suspended over two and a half thousand licenses. But my insider tells me of serious loopholes, one in particular is allowing criminals right back into the industry.
Words of SIA insider, spoken by actor
The legislation has left a gaping hole in relation to people who operate as, or call themselves, security consultants, and it's not surprise to find that some of the worst people in the industry are conveniently now calling themselves security consultants to circumvent the whole reason for the legislation in the first place.
POLING: The SIA legislation was designed to prevent serious criminals from owning security firms. But what the legislation doesn't prevent is those same serious criminals from acting as security consultants. So if you have a serious criminal conviction but you still fancy working in the business, then the answer is simple, just call yourself a consultant.
Meet Lewis Rodden. Once upon a time he was a notorious Glasgow gangster, a former underworld figure with a history of violence. In 2005 Rodden and three associates of his West Coast Security Company were jailed for a total of 17 years. They'd waged a campaign of terror on rival legitimate security businesses to win lucrative contracts. One of these rival firms was owned by Alan Curdy.
The normal procedure is they turn up on site, put their signs up, go to the site manager and say right, this is our turf, we're the security here. If it's a small business, a small company, small builders, they normally put their hands up and say: "Okay, fine, we don't want any problems."
POLING: Do these companies who are approached in this way, do they have a choice?
CURDY: They do have a choice but at the end of the day, when it's just a building site, well it can easily be torched.
POLING: If intimidating potential clients didn't work, West Coast would turn on legitimate security firms like Alan Curdy's.
CURDY: It's not nice when you're at your work doing your job when you've got somebody driving up on in a motor, baseball bat hanging out the window, a knife hanging out the window.. "We're coming to see you."
POLING: But the police were coming to see West Coast. In autumn 2003 Rodden and his associates were arrested. In theory Rodden should have been finished. After all, he was in jail for precisely the sort of offences the SIA was established to stamp out. But it seems that our man isn't the quitting sort. I've heard a rumour that Rodden, not long out of jail, is back in business.
CURDY: All of a sudden there's a new company in town, ?? ?? Contracts. Well these lovely signs appeared on sites.
POLING: We wanted to find out for certain what's going on. We decided to set up a construction company, the nation's property boom has proved lucrative for security firms up and down the country. Our company is called TDM Regeneration. In Glasgow we approached P&B Contracts run by Paul and Barry Rodden, Lewis' sons. Clearly a desire to protect the community runs in the family.
Are you Barry?
BARRY: I'm Barry, yeah.
POLING: But his father remains very much an influence on young Barry's company.
BARRY: My dad used to own Ruchill Security and West Coast.
I phoned Ruchill.
BARRY: West Coast, aye my dad used to own all that. He's been doing security for 15-16 year.
BARRY: So he's a consultant to us and we just take care of it. He normally attends the meetings but he's on another meeting, just now regarding another contract down in Ayrshire.
POLING: Despite a conviction for intimidation and violence, despite being at the centre of Britain's biggest ever security industry trial, Lewis Rodden has come out of prison and gone straight into business as a security consultant. These pictures show him at P&B contracts officers in Glasgow. The Chief Executive of the SIA admitted to me that legally Rodden is doing nothing wrong.
Chief Exec, Security Industry Authority
If he's just calling himself a security consultant and doing nothing, then we wont touch him.
POLING: You can't touch him.
WILSON: We can't touch him because he's not carrying out a licensable activity. If he is... if he can be shown to be involved in licensable activities then we can touch him.
POLING: Are you going to close this loophole?
WILSON: As I say, I don't see it as a loophole if somebody is genuinely acting as a consultant then their background may concern us but it's not technically a problem unless they have a hands-on influence in that company.
POLING: Sadly Lewis Rodden isn't the only former criminal still operating in the security industry. One other name keeps cropping up - Robert Wright, and the Robert Wright that I know is one serious individual.
Estonian Police footage
POLING: Seven years ago he ran a security company in Scotland, but it was his other activities which were attracting the attention of the law. Here he is meeting some friends at Tallinn Airport in the Baltic state of Estonia.
Deputy Director Estonian Security Police
Robert Wright came to Estonia, he acted like a normal businessman in here. We got information that they connected with criminal circles and we started to check their activity and associates.
POLING: One of those associates was one-legged publican William Hayne. Police suspected Hayne was a drugs mule.
Estonian Police footage
RATASSEPP: On 2nd November 2000 we stopped William Hayne in Italian harbour. In searching the car we found out 99½ kilo pure opium and in the streets of UK it would have cost over one million pound.
POLING: The Estonians knew that Hayne was small fry. They wanted the mastermind of the operation and they believed that was Robert Wright. In March 2001 he was arrested in Britain, and after five years fighting extradition he was eventually deported to Estonia. A deal was done. Wright pled guilty. In return he was sentenced to less time than he'd already spent on remand, and that meant he was immediately released and sent back here a free man. I hear that Wright is back in the security business and want to find out if this is true. Given his criminal record it's unlikely he'll admit to this openly. But if he's not aware we're filming him, then maybe I can persuade him to talk. Now Robert Wright and I go back quite a bit. In 2003 he called me from prison, wanted me to make a programme about his extradition fight. Now I didn't make the programme at the time but he thinks I'm doing one now. I arranged to meet him at a service station in Yorkshire near to the headquarters of a national security firm called Feba Custodia, a firm I suspect he's running. After chatting about his extradition Wright tells me what he's up to now.
WRIGHT: I'm living down south and I'm working in security again. You know, I work for myself, I just work as a security consultant because it's all I know what to do and I'm making a good living out of it.
POLING: So, like convicted criminal Lewis Rodden, convicted criminal Robert Wright claims he's now a security consultant. He then gives me a list of his clients.
WRIGHT: I work quite extensively with Walmart at the moment, I'm doing really well with them, you know, I'm earning quite a substantial amount of money with them now. Believe it or not, I'm actually working for the police in Sheffield.
POLING: Doing security?
WRIGHT: Yeah, but in an advisory capacity working in the CCTV Liaison Unit.
POLING: Although a convicted drugs trafficker may not seem the most obvious person to help the police monitor the streets of Sheffield, Wright is doing nothing wrong if he's simply a security consultant. But then he let slip that that his role at Feba Custodia might be more substantial.
WRIGHT: The security company that I started has just been approved by the SIA Approved Contractor Scheme, SIA Gold.
POLING: Fantastic. The one in...
WRIGHT: It's based in Sheffield.
POLING: And is it you who's got that or your company?
WRIGHT: Well, it's me that's driving it.
POLING: Maybe he's boasting. I need to find out for certain if Robert Wright is more than just a consultant. We arranged to meet again a few weeks later at Feba Custodia's head office.
WRIGHT: This is what we call the Patriot System. That's the server which is linked to Scotland, where they put the data on it.
POLING: So how many do you employ?
WRIGHT: In total?
POLING: Mmm hm.
WRIGHT: About 1200 or something.
POLING: There's no suggestion that Feba Custodia is involved in criminal activity and the company itself is clearly substantial.
WRIGHT: It's completely bomb proof. It's all steel structured, you can see the pillars in the corner, there's a membrane around the office. It's quite phenomenal.
POLING: Wow! Incredible.
WRIGHT: Unfortunately it's down just now, I'd be able to show you all the live images.
POLING: For cameras that you have anywhere or....?
WRIGHT: M1, Sheffield city centre. That's the Sheffield College we do, that's their uniform. It's the biggest educational contract in the UK. We do it all.
POLING: He even claims he's in charge of security for Mickey Mouse.
WRIGHT: There's all the ASDAs. Yeah, every file. Everything. There's Disney Stores.
POLING: Call me cynical but Robert Wright doesn't seem like just a consultant to me. He looks like Feba Custodia's main man.
WRIGHT: This is what I do, this is my job.
POLING: Is it satisfying?
WRIGHT: Yeah, I get a lot of satisfaction from it, oh aye. We're just going through a restructure just now. I've just promoted Tim, who spoke to you when you came in, Time that's my Sales Director.
POLING: Right, okay.
WRIGHT: They're not shareholders or anything, and I've got Marie who is Financial Director, and Malcolm, the bigger guy that was there, he's the Operations Director. So basically I've got a good team there, you know.
POLING: So, a convicted drugs trafficker, a man with a firearms offence, claims to operate a security empire which spans city centres, motorways, colleges and toy stores. I saw his contract with Sheffield College, but Walmart, ASDA, Disney and South Yorkshire police all denied directly employing Feba Custodia. However, in an industry where subcontracting is common, our sources say they might be indirectly employing this man without knowing it.
WRIGHT: Just to reiterate what we've said, everything we're talking about, everything that you see here and everything I'm doing is completely confidential.
Custodia is an international facility services organisation supplying services to a diverse client portfolio throughout the UK, Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA).
POLING: What is not in doubt is that Feba Custodia has been awarded approved contractor status, the gold standard of the security industry. This strengthens their bids for the biggest and most lucrative contracts in the country. It's this kind of lapse which so worries my SIA insider.
Words of SIA insider, spoken by actor
You would have thought that that type of individual would never in a month of Sundays be able to operate. It begs the question how has he been able to obtain a license? How has he been able to run a company? How has that company achieved that status? Each of those three elements goes to the heart of what the legislation was about and what the legislation was intended to prevent happening.
POLING: His company has been accredited with approved contractor status, the gold standard of the security industry! How on earth has that happened?
WILSON: It's perfectly possible for a company to get approved contractor status by simply not... by having on its books directors who do not show up as having criminal records. If they have on their books somebody who has simply not declared their director activities but is acting in a shadow director capacity and perhaps calling themselves a consultant, then that's something that we would look at very seriously and if we found that to be occurring in an approved contractor, we would almost certainly remove their approval status.
POLING: When I first investigated security firms four years ago it was widely accepted there was a serious criminal element behind some of the companies. The industry knew it, the police knew it, the government knew it. That's why the SIA rules were brought in. But after seeing how the likes of Lewis Rodden and Robert Wright make their living, I'm starting to wonder how much has really changed. And in Liverpool our undercover team has been given friendly warnings about the wisdom of setting up a new security firm in the city.
MAN 1: You wouldn't want to be stepping on these boys' toes really, they're not nice, like.
MAN 2: You're taking a risk going round with these.
MAN 1: They are gangsters and basically they turn round and say, we're doing your site and if you don't do it, we're going to ****ing beat you up.
POLING: The only call we got was from one of the firms we suspects of having links with criminal elements.
All that I'm doing is I'm trying to get business.
CALLER: You're touting for work, right, all my sites have got security so you're going behind my back and trying to get my work, so at the end of the day f*** off and don't bother going on any of them sites ever again, mate.
Merseyside Police footage
COOKE: We haven't solved the problem by any means but we're certainly tackling it head on and we've had great success and we intend to keep that success going. The violent thugs we need to target them, we need to tackle them and we need to drive them out.
But how can we prevent these violent thugs from entering the industry in the first place? The government is placing its faith in training industry personnel for the first time. Now the SIA regulations were meant to ensure that convicted criminals and other undesirables couldn't just walk out of prison and into a job as a bouncer or a doorman or a security guard. What they have to do now is undergo training and a series of exams to ensure not only that they're competent but they're up to the job that they're being paid to do. The security industry authority has passed over the training of security staff to outside bodies including security companies. These companies train the doormen in your pub and the security guard at your hospital and retail park. The people who take this training are the part of the security industry you'll encounter nearly every day of your life. This is Richard. He's agreed to sit the SIA training course for us. He was supposed to undergo 28 hours of training after which he'd sit a two part exam.
Richard's training was run by Upfront Security, one of the industry's biggest firms. Richard received under 12 hours of training, less than half of what the SIA requires. The exam was just as badly run.
CLASS INSTRUCTOR: I'll give you a hint at what you should read and what you should know
RICHARD: Although they'd run the set up in exam conditions, that was about it. She goes out and gets the Door Steward eight course notes and gives them all out to us to say to revise. I did ask her whether I could keep them on my desk for the exam.
Is it alright to leave these on my desk?
CLASS EXAMINER: Unfortunately no.
RICHARD: She said no. I kept it on the desk anyway and no one seemed to do anything about it, but she wasn't in the room when I started copying from it.
POLING: So if she wasn't in the room, I mean there was plenty of opportunity I would guess for you to just copy the student notes.
RICHARD: Well I did, at least three times, holding it up in front of me. I mean... you know, I didn't sneakily do it, flicking through this core syllabus, so all the answers from the exam, I mean that....
POLING: Did other people notice the fact you were openly cheating?
RICHARD: Well yeah, the gentleman to my left noticed what I was doing so he started doing the same thing. He picked up his course booklet next to him and starts doing the same as me. We both looked at each other and laughed. This is in between getting a phone call during the exam of which she sees me having the phone call. She walks into the room as my phone is going. All she did was give me a wry smile and then pick up somebody else's pages.
POLING: Unsurprisingly Richard passes. Posing as his proud girlfriend I go to Up Front to pick up his two certificates, one for each exam he sat. Richard will then send these off to the security industry authority and hopefully get his license. Open cheating and completing less than half the required training time, this doesn't strike me as the most professional way to professionalize the security industry. My insider agrees.
Words of SIA insider, spoken by actor
At the end of the day they're getting their certificate, but the certificate's a worthless piece of paper. They haven't been tested. Up Front, being the size of company that they are, will not just have trained their own workforce, they'll have probably captured a significant market share by training people from other companies, so that the scale of the training malpractice they've engaged in can't just be measured in terms of their own workforce, but should be considered in the scale of the number of people they put through the training programme, and I'd be very, very surprised if that was not measured literally in thousands.
POLING: I put our findings to all the people we'd secretly filmed. First up were Feba Custodia who had no comment. So I decided to confront Robert Wright and Feba's directors at their bomb-proof head office.
The place is pretty empty. In fact that's Robert Wright's car there.
I'm Sam Poly, I'm from BBC's Panorama. We've been investigating the security industry and in particular Robert Wright who we believe owns this company. Are their clients aware who is actually running this company, are they aware....
WOMAN AT RECEPTION: I'm sorry, I'm not in a position to answer that. I'm just...
... that the person who is running the security for their businesses is a convicted drugs trafficker and also has firearms offences.
WOMAN: We're not in a position to answer these questions, you know, and nobody will speak to you or wants to speak to you.
POLING: And Robert Wright won't come out to answer the question himself.
WOMAN: No, I'm sorry, Robert's not actually here, so... you know...
POLING: Right, okay. Well listen, thank you for your time anyway. Alright?
WOMAN: Thank you.
POLING: Well we had no joy and Maria Ross, who is one of the directors of the company, and also Malcolm Bell, the other director of the company, both inside, both unwilling to talk. Robert Wright's car is outside. He's also apparently unavailable. Meanwhile the training firm Up Front did respond admitting shortcomings with their training and exams. But they say they've completely revised their arrangements since our filming. They've also considerably tightened up the invigilation process and increased the hours of training. I summarised all the programme's findings to the SIA.
I've give you examples today of a man with convictions of violence and intimidation within the security industry. I've given an example of a man with drugs trafficking offences, with firearms convictions, who's not only working as a security consultant but we believe controlling a huge national company and you're telling me people shouldn't be worried. I'm worried. Don't you think you should be?
Chief Exec, Security Industry Authority
We've issued a quarter of a million licenses. We deal with over 400 approved contractor companies, and there's a whole host of additional companies and venues out there. It would be unrealistic to imagine that there isn't some instance of the sort of activity to which you elude. But it's not commonplace throughout the industry.
POLING: Well you don't know that.
WILSON: And where we identify it we take action against it.
POLING: My insider remains sceptical.
Words of SIA insider, spoken by actor
The industry is still bedevilled with criminality, poor standards, poor conditions at work, and I think it's important that the SIA as regulator and people in the industry understand that there's much more work still to be done before we can perhaps sit back and say yes, job done.
VINE: Samantha Polling reporting on what is an increasingly vital area with so much security visible in so many corners of our lives, and you can keep up with any action the authorities take as a result of that programme on our website.
Next Monday Alex James blew a million on coke and champagne during his years with Blair. Now he volunteers to witness the damage cocaine causes in the country where it's made.