Selling off Britain: Privatising the police

Plans to replace officers with contractors raise fears over policing for profit.

Here’s a job advert, posted online in early October.

“Wanted: Major Crime Investigator”

“Major crime units are responsible for dealing with the most serious types of crime, to ensure their investigation receives specialised investigation. This may include crimes such as murder or rape, and so they can often be high profile cases in the local area, or even nationally.”

If you discount the poor grammar, the repetition and the bad wording, then you can still see that this is a pretty significant job. A responsible job that the public should have faith in. A job for a trained police officer.

But no. This advert was posted on the jobs page of the G4S website (they didn’t return our calls, so I can’t tell you much else about it).

G4S, you may recall, made such a shambles of organising security at the Olympics in London that the police and the army had to be called in to sort things out. How the police liked having their summer holidays ruined, how the soldiers rejoiced in having to do this when many of them were about to be made redundant in government cuts.

Undaunted, the same G4S – and other companies like it – advertise for jobs which the police would normally have done. In fact, this same advert goes on to say that it’s the kind of thing “a retired police officer” could do.

But why privatise the police at all? It’s a question which large swathes of the public in this country can’t get their heads around. Britain gave the world the idea of an independent, state run, supposedly neutral police force – paid for by taxes and answerable to the people. The idea of companies such as G4S running the police instead, answerable only to their shareholders, gives lots of people the shivers.

Still, the Conservative-led coalition government here wants to push on with it. A couple of police forces have swallowed privatisation wholesale, while others are wrestling with it. In Birmingham (Britain’s second-largest city) the police have spent the whole year insisting they’re not for sale. They’ve made the best part of a thousand redundancies at the insistence of the government to save money from the budget – and yet they may still go down the privatisation route. It’s assumed they’re being bounced into it by ministers.

The Police Federation, which approximates a union (the police aren’t officially allowed to form a union) have said over and over that frontline policing will be affected by any move in this direction, and that public safety will be jeopardised.

The problem is that nobody knows how far it will go. The initial idea was that it would only be “backroom staff” doing privatised jobs. Clearly, given the sort of advert quoted above, that’s simply not true. And anyway, as the police themselves say, they’ve been working with civilian staff for decades. So why change things so radically now?

For the past week or so, the British public has been absorbed by a tragic story of a five-year-old girl abducted while playing near her home in rural Wales. She’s gone, disappeared without trace, presumed murdered and a man’s been arrested. All the while, the police comb the countryside, rivers and ditches for her body. People expect the police, a trained force with a pronounced sense of public duty, to do this.

In future (the police fear) it could be a privatised, outsourced bunch of people doing this, looking for a little girl who could be alive or could be dead. How long would the shareholders want the search to go on for once the TV cameras have left? Could they save money by shortening the hours of the search? I can absolutely guarantee you that the mood in Britain is not behind that sort of thing, not one bit.

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