G4S, policing and freedom

By Savi Hensman
August 15, 2012

Private contractor G4S has advertised for staff to take over certain policing functions, sparking controversy.

The government has been intent on handing over many police duties to the private sector, but the handling of security at the 2012 Olympics by G4S was a “humiliating shambles”, as its own chief executive admitted. In the end, the police and army had to carry out much of the work for which G4S was paid – not the best advertisement for privatising public services.

Nonetheless G4S has reportedly been trying to recruit investigators in Rugby, Nuneaton, Leamington and Northolt. Civilian staff working for Lincolnshire police have already been transferred to G4S’ management.

Plans to pay private companies to take over many of the tasks previously carried out by the police, such as investigating crimes, detaining suspects and preparing cases for court, have raised concerns not only about the reliability and quality of work but also about power and accountability.

No doubt many of the staff hired (some of whom would be ex-police officers) would do their jobs conscientiously. But there are huge risks in allowing private firms to delve into the most intimate aspects of people’s lives when they are at their most vulnerable, interfere with their activities and profoundly influence their futures. An unfounded suspicion, or insensitive treatment of a victim, could have lifelong consequences.

Police can and do get things wrong, but there are checks and balances in place and some measure of public accountability. There are also issues around privacy and whether the public has given informed consent for the state to hand over some of its key responsibilities and powers to unelected corporations.

Certainly G4S’ mishandling of the London Olympics contract has not inspired confidence. In addition, G4S runs prisons in Rugby, Birmingham and elsewhere, which could appear to create a conflict of interest, especially if some of those convicted as a result of G4S activities ended up being imprisoned by G4S. G4S also provides some court services and electronically monitors ‘tagged’ offenders.

This raises serious questions about how much society values freedom and fair treatment for ordinary people compared to opportunities for large corporations to make a profit. Certainly, given the criminal justice system’s huge impact on persons and communities, such a major shift should be publicly debated.


(c) Savi Hensman is a regular and widely published Christian commentator on public, political and religious issues. She works in the care and equalities sector, and she is an Ekklesia associate.

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