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What is an on-premises security guard?

An on-premises (or ‘on-site’) security guard is someone who is responsible for protecting and safeguarding a physical location (eg a building). On-premises security guards tend to be employed by a business to maintain security, prevent unauthorised access, and respond to on-site security incidents.

For legal and practical purposes, a security guard is simply a civilian like anybody else. In fact, a more accurate term for their job might be ‘watch person’, because a security guard’s main job is to watch what goes on around them and, hence, to deter people from doing anything they shouldn’t.

Do security guards need to be licensed?

Under the Private Security Industry Act 2001, anyone who carries out certain licensable activities associated with being a security guard (eg protecting property, patrolling an area, or preventing theft) must have a S​​ecurity Industry Authority (SIA) licence. In other words, someone who provides certain activities normally associated with security guards in a private security setting (ie not whilst working for a public body) must have an SIA licence.

The types of activities that require an SIE licence (ie licensable activities) include:

  • manned guarding - this includes if someone:

    • guards property (eg a business’ belongings) against damage or theft and uses a vehicle designed for secure transportation to move the property 

    • guards other people against physical assault or injury

    • guards licensed premises (ie premises that have a licence to sell alcohol or to provide regulated entertainment, like film screenings) against damage, theft, unauthorised access, or disorderly behaviour

    • guards premises, property, or people by using CCTV to surveil members of the public, identify a particular person, guard against disorder, or protect people from assault

    • guards premises or property against damage, theft, unauthorised access, or disorderly behaviour

  • key holding - this involves someone keeping, or controlling access to, any key or device that operate locks

Anyone who undertakes one or more of the above activities must have a valid SIA licence. Further, you could be fined or imprisoned if you hire someone to work security and they don’t have a valid licence.

If you’re hiring a security guard for private security work, you must make sure they have a relevant SIA licence. If they don’t have one, you must ensure they receive all relevant training and obtain a licence. You can use the SIA register to see if someone has a licence.

For more information, see the government’s guidance on finding out if you need an SIA licence and Applying for an SIA licence.

What security guards can and can’t do

Can security guards use surveillance equipment?

Yes, they can. Nowadays, it is increasingly common for businesses to have a central control room in which security guards use surveillance equipment (such as CCTV) and guards walking around the relevant area. Often, the guards in the control room monitor the entire space, looking for issues, and send the guards on the floor to anywhere they are needed.

This can work very effectively; just remember that a person’s biometric data (ie biological or physical characteristics that can be used to identify someone) is considered personal data under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). In simple terms, this means that data can only be collected with informed consent and that the extent of the data collection must be proportionate to its purpose.  

The use of facial-recognition technology (including facial-recognition AI tools) is a legal hot topic. These technologies can be risky to implement. Anyone interested in using them should do their own research thoroughly and make sure to keep informed of any legal changes. If you have any questions about using this type of technology, do not hesitate to Ask a lawyer.

Furthermore, beyond the legalities, it might be a good idea to think about how the use of surveillance equipment may be viewed by legitimate customers.

Can security guards undertake unauthorised searches of personal property?

Security guards can undertake searches of property that has been left unattended in suspicious circumstances. In these situations, there is no clear owner from whom to ask permission.

They cannot undertake unauthorised searches of personal property. The exception is if the person to whom the property belongs (or appears to belong) is incapacitated and they are trying to identify and/or otherwise assist them.

Can security guards use handcuffs or weapons?

Security guards can carry handcuffs but not weapons. In principle, security guards can carry and use handcuffs, although there are only very limited circumstances in which they can be safely used. In practice, handcuffs need to be put on correctly to avoid injuring the person on whom they are used and to avoid opening up the security guard’s employer's business to civil legal action on health and safety grounds.

Can security guards detain people?

Security guards can detain people, but they can only use ‘reasonable force’ to do so. This is probably the trickiest part of the law as it applies to security guarding. In the UK, anyone can make a ‘citizen’s arrest’ under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.

The grounds for doing so are that someone is committing a crime or that the person making the citizen’s arrest has reasonable grounds to suspect that the person they’re detaining has committed a crime and either:

  • it is impractical for a police officer to arrest them, or 

  • the person making the citizen’s arrest believes that the arrest is necessary to prevent harm to person or property

Security guards can only use ‘reasonable’ force to make a citizen’s arrest. For practical purposes, this essentially means that they can use minimal force. The practical issue here is not necessarily determining the amount of force that is reasonable; it’s being able to demonstrate that a security guard did not use excessive force. Ideally, you would like to have an objective record of the process (eg body-cam footage) and not rely on witness testimony.

Security guards need to identify themselves

All security guards that have an SIA licence must identify themselves by displaying their licence and badge while they are working. This must be visible to the public at all times. The only exceptions to this rule are when:

  • the badge has been lost or stolen and this has been reported to the SIA

  • the badge is currently in the SIA’s possession, or

  • the security guard is carrying out an activity that, on that occasion, requires them not to be immediately identifiable (eg acting as a store detective)

Note that, if the last bullet point applies, the security guard must carry their licence with them and present it on request.

If a security guard does not display their badge, they can lose their licence and may face legal action.

If asked, a security guard must show their badge and provide their full name to:

  • police officers

  • SIA officers

  • anyone granted authority by the SIA under the Private Security Industry Act 2001 (typically licensing officers from local councils) 

While a member of the public has a right to request that a security guard show them their licence, security guards do not have to do so, provided they properly display their licence and badge.

Hiring on-site security guards can be tricky, so do not hesitate to Ask a lawyer if you have any questions or concerns.


Marie Tracey
Marie Tracey
Managing Director at Heart Security

Marie Tracey is the Managing Director of Heart Security, who are specialists in commercial security solutions. Their services include gatehouse security, retail security, static security guards, construction site security and more.

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