Police privatisation: dogma, profit and power

By Savi Hensman
March 3, 2012

West Midlands and Surrey police authorities have invited private companies to bid to carry out a range of policing activities, the Guardian reported. This may be extended to other parts of the country.

Meanwhile UK home secretary Theresa May declared that it was vital to harness the innovation of the private sector to help the police force.

While private contractors’ staff will not be able to make arrests, they may be given power to investigate crime, detain suspects, develop cases for prosecution, patrol neighbourhoods, manage major incidents, protect vulnerable people, disrupt criminal networks, manage forensics and intelligence, among other functions.

The police, like much of the public sector, face heavy budget cuts. Yet, as with other privatisation drives, this may, in the long term, cost more than it saves. Using staff who are poorly trained and largely unaccountable to the public may increase the risk of expensive mistakes, as well as putting the public in danger.

This work may be worth £1.5 billion or more over seven years. Giving lucrative contracts to the private sector would appear to fit the government’s ideology. But it is not clear that ministers have thought through the full implications, given the power that will be wielded and scope of policing.

There are major civil liberties concerns about giving private companies power to obtain detailed – sometimes intimate – information about people’s lives and, if necessary, disrupt these.

Nor is it merely ordinary people without great wealth or prestige who will be affected if things go badly wrong. Unlike the field of health, where richer people tend to be able to pay for private care if needed, policing crosses social boundaries.

No doubt many managers of private contractors, their staff and subcontractors would do their jobs conscientiously – but not necessarily all. And only a handful with other agendas could wreak havoc.

Does the government really want private security firms and their employees to have access to people’s financial and medical details, including those of their own MPs and donors? To be able to disrupt major financial institutions in the midst of trading and impound their computers on suspicion that fraud is taking place? To be allowed to detain whoever they see fit?

There are all kinds of hazards involved in privatising most policing functions, quite apart from the reputational risk to the government. Even if some ministers’ commitment to human rights is weak, they would be well advised to back down from plans to give away such power.


(c) Savi Hensman is a commentator on social, political and religious issues. She is an Ekklesia associate.

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