Chairman's Blog

Police Privatisation - A Threat to Policing by Consent - Myth or Reality?

Whenever I talk about police privatisation and the inherent threat to policing by consent, I am often met with a mixture of shock, horror and disbelief. There are those who casually dismiss the warnings as old fashioned "union" protectionism. There isn't any public debate about privatisation. There should be, but it is happening in an opaque, piecemeal way; unless you are "in the know" it is difficult to assemble the pieces. So this is my attempt to put some of those jigsaw pieces together to reveal the full picture.

Policing in England & Wales has been subjected to budget cuts of 20% that will deliver 16,200 fewer police officers (500 in my own force) & 18,000 fewer police staff. Has policing surrendered any of its responsibilities? No. Have workloads diminished? No. The answer from politicians is as simple as work harder or, to quote the latest mantra, do things differently! I believe these cuts create a gap, and an economic opportunity for the private sector. Privatisation or outsourcing as it is called - far less emotive - is already happening for HR, payroll, control rooms and custody suites. Google Lincolnshire Police, G4S & outsourcing and look for yourself; this is all done in the name of keeping police officers on the street. That's laudable many will say, streamlining what they term the "back office" to bolster the frontline. Hold that thought.

In March 2012 The Guardian newspaper revealed details of "EU Contract Notes" (marked commercial in confidence) issued by Surrey and West Midlands Police Forces to private companies to bid for the provision of policing services. I have included the link so that you can read them.

It is clear from the "Notes" these bids go way beyond so-called "back office" functions such as HR or payroll and, by any definition of it, enter the world of frontline policing - neighbourhood patrol, crime investigation & managing high risk offenders to name but three. I am aware the Chief Constable of Surrey has tried to distance herself from this having inherited it from her predecessor, but will any chief constable have the final say? The answer is no, as from November 2012 Police & Crime Commissioners will have that final say. It may not appear in their manifesto but history reminds us how little trust we should all have in pre-election promises. In reality, as budget cuts bite deeper, how much choice will a PCC have? Private companies will see this as a business opportunity. I fear that privatisation (to give outsourcing its proper name) on the scale envisaged by Surrey and the West Midlands will remove police officers from ordinary day to day contact with the public, and replace them with private security guards. What role will be left for police officers? Confrontation & enforcement; their interaction with the public will become increasingly restricted to when force is required.

There is always the possibility that private companies won't be interested. At a conference held to explore this further, there were dozens of interested companies. Be under no illusion, the private sector has a voracious appetite for this. They can see huge profits.

The end of March 2012 saw the publication of Tom Winsor's 2nd report. The media had a field day with the fitness test - they couldn't get enough of the "Blobby Bobby" headline. Sadly they read no further and the remainder of the report attracted little or no attention. Had they read it and linked it to the other pieces of this evolving picture they may have come to far less amusing conclusions.

Despite Winsor's protestations about the value of the independent Office of Constable, it is clear his recommendations value it little and transform police officers into employees. A police officer's individual independence (of action & accountability) is the cornerstone of policing by consent. This is hugely important - how independent, from both internal & external pressure, will police officers be when they have one eye on redundancy?

Winsor's fitness test is very much a movable feast; by 2018 it will be the test used in Northern Ireland where police officers are routinely armed; I wonder how many 59 year old police officers will pass that! If you can't pass it you'll be cast from the service. If you perform a role, for whatever reason, that doesn't require the use of warranted powers you'll get an 8% pay cut and ultimately could be cast or forced to become a member of police staff. In addition to this you could be made redundant for purely budgetary reasons.

This clearly indicates a desire for every police officer to be fully fit & ready for confrontation. There isn't any value placed on police officers or roles that don't fit these criteria. The only thing missing is a recommendation that every police officer is riot trained. Perhaps that would have been too obvious at this time but I strongly suspect it will come in future years. Last summer it took some time to marshal mutual aid resources onto the streets of London to quell the riots. Notwithstanding reductions in establishments, how much quicker would that have been achieved if every police officer was riot trained?

Winsor's second report is clearly designed to produce a "new order" based on pseudo-military principles and practices. It will see a much reduced police officer establishment; reduced to a core of police officers fit for confrontation.

South Yorkshire Police's intention to rebrand PCSOs as "local beat officers" in neighbourhoods, whilst corralling police officers into "task teams", appears to be highly symptomatic of Tom Winsor's "new order" in his 2nd report. PCSOs would be dealing with the softer elements of policing, with police officers playing the part of the storm troopers, called in when strong-arm tactics are required. How long before private security companies offer to provide the "local beat officers" at a much reduced cost under an accredited safety scheme? If I was a PCSO in South Yorkshire I would be hugely concerned; I suspect they are being fattened for market!

Some may say - so what! This is why it matters and should be of huge concern to everyone. When Sir Robert Peel established policing in 1829 he chose a specific model; he chose policing by the people for the people; he modelled it as a civil not a paramilitary authority; he established policing by consent, a style that has been much admired and copied the world over. To gain and maintain that consent, policing needs to be imbedded as an intrinsic part of all our daily lives and not just rolled out when force or coercion is required.

The isolation of police officers as agents of enforcement fundamentally undermines policing by consent. Police officers will become a version of the CRS in France; they'll be a paramilitary force, the very thing Sir Robert Peel wanted to avoid. The rest of policing will be left to a collection of private companies, re-badged PCSOs, or other accredited agencies until they too are privatised.

Put simply, there are some public services that do not benefit from the direct involvement of the private sector and should be insulated from market forces and the profit motive. Policing is for the public, accountable to the public. It should never be for profit. It should never be accountable to shareholders.

Policing by consent established in 1829.

Dismantled without consent 2012!

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