The privatisation of police services endangers civil liberties by reducing police accountability, leaving the public powerless to corporate whims
It is no exaggeration to say that policing impinges upon virtually everything that we do in a modern liberal democracy. Good policing holds the ring between responsible civil society and those who seek to disrupt our lives or threaten our wellbeing. It ensures that communities are safe and well-ordered so that commerce and employment can prosper. In addition, the best policing should always protect civil liberties and democratic values of accountability.
No one knows this better than the senior police officers and the politicians who are responsible for them. Both bombard the long-suffering public with media spin, blithely claiming that everything they do is garlanded with success. They tell us that policing, in their hands, delivers exactly what you and I want. However, to paraphrase Mandy Rice-Davies, “Well they would say that, wouldn’t they!”, because such individuals have a vested interest in preserving careers, constituencies and pensions.
In truth, the situation in the real world is much bleaker.
In researching this article I have interviewed serving and retired officers of all ranks. I have spoken to victims of crime, practitioners in the criminal justice system and the ordinary man and woman in the street. No one believes that we have got it right. Indeed, a significant majority of police professionals take the view that something radical needs to be done if we are to preserve anything of value from a police system which is showing every sign of being no longer fit for purpose.
Something has to change. From the leafy suburbs of Thames Valley to Manchester council estates and from madrassa’s in Bradford to chapel villages in Snowdonia; policing has become something that is done to you, rather than something that is done for you. In a decade we have allowed ourselves to become a nation of ‘suspects’; to be photographed, checked, stopped, searched, DNA data-based, required to identify ourselves and told that we must account for our actions whenever we are ordered to do so. We have swallowed the line that every fresh infringement of our liberty is necessary because of ‘the terrorist threat’ or to ‘deter paedophiles’ or just ‘to defeat crime’. If you seek to argue against the prevailing trend you are promptly categorised as ‘anti-police’ and therefore not to be trusted. Sadly, however, a significant proportion of the population, probably the majority, seem quite prepared to submit to each new restriction on the spurious grounds that, “I’ve got nothing to hide, so where’s the problem?.”
In their different ways, both the government and the opposition have allowed events to wash over them, not fully understanding the issues involved. Both are equally guilty of posturing ‘short-termism’ dressed up as action, with every new law, initiative and review that they launch. At the heart of the problem is a failure to properly define what we want and what we need from the army of police officers who are increasingly absent from our streets. For whilst no reasonable person would claim that we do not need effective policing in these crowded islands, the issue is not about policing per se. It is about the way it is delivered, and increasingly it is about the attitude, character and abilities of the officers who deliver it. In these restrictive economic times, there is also a real debate to be had about how to pay for a bloated public service bill in which financial management and cost-control appear to be lost arts.
The police have never been held in lower esteem than they are today, but there is one aspect of the British approach to policing which places us ‘head and shoulders’ above most countries and should be robustly protected. Police officers elsewhere in Europe and across the globe can be ordered – on pain of dismissal or even imprisonment if they refuse – to do anything, or arrest anyone, at the whim of heads of state, politicians, ‘ministers of the interior’, and so on. For all their faults, British police officers have total operational independence and have hardly ever been tainted by such outside influence. In theory, and in practice, every officer from the Commissioner down to the most junior constable is answerable to the courts for any misdeeds, and the courts jealously guard their primacy over elected politicians and officials. This tried and tested separation of powers is the ultimate safeguard that we have against an over-mighty or oppressive executive. It is not always perfect, and is often frustratingly bureaucratic, but such democratic accountability has value beyond gold and we sacrifice it at our peril.
Yet this is exactly what we may be about to do. By stealth, with no public debate and hardly any publicity beyond the closed circle of professional policing, changes are being introduced which threaten the very existence of the legal accountability of police forces to the citizens for whom they are responsible. On the pretext of ‘management efficiency’ and ‘seeking value for money’, the Home Office is driving through a radical programme of privatisation which goes far beyond anything that has been attempted before. In the wake of 20 per cent cuts to their overall budgets up to 2015 and beyond, chief constables are being required to do much more with much less. In order to preserve ‘front line’ services they are being encouraged to think the unthinkable. Previous tranches of privatisation in the 1980s and 1990s were aimed at releasing spare capacity by employing non-police civilian support staff to do many of the non-core functions that did not need the unique powers of a constable, and did not impinge upon the liberty of the individual. Thus, intelligence analysts, case-file clerks, warrant servers and many more jobs, were ‘civilianised’ and devolved to non-police officers recruited from the public usually at much lower rates of pay. But, significantly, the relevant police authority retained legal accountability for them as direct employees.
In the last nine months, however, a completely new and troubling model has emerged. From 1 April 2012, the Lincolnshire Police Force has contracted the international security giant G4S (formed by a merger between Group 4 Security and Securicor) to take over the detention and safe custody of all prisoners arrested in the county. At a cost to the local ratepayers of £200 million over the ten years of the contract, G4S will also build and run a purpose built police station and custody facility, and engage in investigative support work. All of this will be done using their own uniformed personnel, who are only accountable to the company for their actions – not the public.
This so-called ‘partnership’ activity, nodded through by a supine police authority and scheming Home Office, has crossed a constitutional Rubicon. The removal of someone’s liberty and their detention in custody before conviction are quintessentially activities that the state should hold to itself. Yet for the first time these duties have been outsourced to a private company, working for profit. The fact that a senior director of G4S, and chairman of their Remuneration Committee, is Lord Condon, a former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, is unlikely to have had anything to do with the award of the contract, but conspiracy theories abound in the outer reaches of the blogosphere. Indeed, in a written answer to a question in the House of Lords by Baroness Byford (Con) in November last year, a Home Office minister was forced to admit that G4S is the only private company in the UK to have access to confidential records on the Police National Computer – access that was granted before the award of the contract.
Shocking as it is, what is happening in Lincolnshire is only the thin end of a very thick wedge. On 24 January this year, a contract tendering notice was published in the Official Journal of the European Union by the UK’s second largest police force, the West Midlands Police, together with the Surrey Police. In explicit terms the notice states that the tender is intended to ‘deliver transformation across service delivery’ and is also published ‘for the benefit’ of all police forces in England and Wales. The scale of the proposed contract, at around £3.5 billion over seven years, is unprecedented, and close reading of the document confirms that wholesale privatisation of all aspects of policing is the eventual aim, notwithstanding soothing words from the Home Office and ACPO. Private companies are invited to bid to take over almost all of what the public regard as core police functions, such as bringing offenders to justice and investigating crime, detaining suspects, managing ‘high risk’ individuals, disrupting criminal networks, responding to, managing and investigating major incidents, patrolling neighbourhoods, assisting in the development of police policy and strategy, and managing road safety and all forms of licensing.
The above is just part of a much longer list of functions ‘on offer’, and interest from specialist security firms from across the globe has been intense. Indeed, as recently as a month ago it was confirmed that the US consortium Kellogg Brown and Root, which used to be part of the Pentagon’s favourite outsourcing company, Halliburton, is one of 15 firms shortlisted for the West Midlands / Surrey contract. KBR have scant experience of policing, but were involved, when part of Halliburton, in the construction of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay – hardly a ringing endorsement for the future of day to day policing in this country.
All of this is work in progress, but there are clear signs that in order to meet public spending deficit targets, the government is anxious to see a ‘transformation’ of the police succeed. Anyone concerned about police accountability should be appalled by what is happening and should raise their voice in protest. Handing sweeping powers of investigation and detention to unaccountable, poorly paid, poorly trained security guards is a frightening prospect.
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