05 March 2012

This weekend the media went into overdrive reporting that the privatisation of policing was imminent after the invitation by the West Midlands and Surrey Police forces to contractors like G4S and Serco to deliver a wide range of services.

The Guardian reported that “The breathtaking list of policing activities up for grabs includes investigating crimes, detaining suspects, developing cases, responding to and investigating incidents, supporting victims and witnesses, managing high-risk individuals, patrolling neighbourhoods, managing intelligence, managing engagement with the public, as well as more traditional back-office functions, such as managing forensics, providing legal services, managing the vehicle fleet, finance and human resources”.

The problem is that such reports are fundamentally misleading. The list that The Guardian is referring to appears to be a standard schedule of policing activities referred to in the contract, known as the ‘policing activities glossary’, and the contract explicitly states that “not all of these activities will necessarily be included in the final scope”. As Nick Herbert, Minister for Justice and Policing was quick to point out: "there was absolutely no intention... that private companies will be involved in patrols. Those are core policing functions. This is all about supporting the front line by making sure that the backroom jobs that do that can be done more efficiently”.

It is not just confusion about the scope of contracts that misleads. The terminology is also confusing – as privatisation involves shifting the delivery and funding of a service over to individuals (as happened with gas and telecoms in the 1980s). With these proposals, the funding clearly remains provided by government, and no one is proposing that you only get a police service if you chip in.

What's new here, then? At first glance, not that much. Most of the new contracts will cover activities which some forces have already outsourced, like administrative support on investigations, CCTV tracking, and management of custody suites.

But there are radical elements to the new contracting approach. First, and positively, the police forces involved appear to be moving away from the traditional approach of commissioning tightly specified single services, which should enable service providers to come up with more innovative ways of delivering value to the police. Our work on commissioning has highlighted several examples of innovation as a result of a more collaborative and open contracting discussion, where providers are encouraged to think broadly about how they can offer better value for the taxpayer.

Second, the size of the contracts is far larger than previously, with the contracts being potentially worth as much as £200 million a year. This naturally increases the importance of contractors performing well and requires police forces to ensure that appropriate measures are in place to ensure a smooth transition to a different provider if performance is unacceptable – or, as happened to the social care firm Southern Cross, the provider falls into bankruptcy.

In turn, this raises the question of whether the police service is currently sufficiently skilled in the areas of contract design and management to secure good value for the taxpayer. Our work highlights that not enough has been done to prepare public servants for the extra commissioning implied by the Government’s current reform programme, although there are positive moves such as the creation of the Major Project Leadership Academy. This is not the privatisation of the police – but it is, nonetheless, a departure that requires preparation, careful thought, and skilful execution.


You are playing down the potential significance of this. You quote the Minister as saying that there is absolutely no intention that private companies will be involved in patrols. But why are ACPO saying that private security staff are already patrolling public spaces?

There is somewhere in this a point of principle about conflict of interest. Police swear to act impartially. Employees of private companies are necessarily partial. But I guess questions of principle have all but disappeared from government. Combined with the uncertainties of elected commissioners it looks to me like a potential disaster in the making. An evidence based case for the policy might reassure me otherwise!

In our 'Cost of the Cops' report, we backed outsourcing and civilianisation because it would drive up standards, encourage innovation, and free up warranted officers - the most valuable asset a force has. West Midlands is in real need of this new delivery model because as the report found: "Looking at just the five functions we analysed ... the cost of using officers instead of staff is costing the [West Midlands] force £8 million every year". This misdeployment of officers remains a problem across the service, and in 2010: "The failure to ensure that officers were in the right roles commensurate with their warranted powers meant that [at least] 7,280 officers were being paid more than civilian staff to perform civilian roles in positions that made them invisible to the public. This total equates to 40% of the entire complement of additional officers hired between 2001 and 2010."
See: http://www.policyexchange.org.uk/publications/category/item/cost-of-the-...

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