A clutch of police forces is expected to hand the management of their cells to the private sector for the first time as they seek to meet stringent government cost saving targets.
Thames Valley Police, one of the UK’s largest, is set within weeks to announce the winner of the £60m to £80m competition to run its 600 cells for six years.
Six other forces – West Mercia Police, Warwickshire Police, Staffordshire Police, Gloucestershire Constabulary, Wiltshire Police and Hampshire Constabulary – have also joined the framework agreement on the outsourcing of so-called custody suites, where people arrested by police are processed and detained.
Private sector companies competing to win the Thames Valley contract include Capita, Serco and G4S and they are confident that the cuts to police budgets mean authorities will have little alternative but to outsource some areas, if they are going to reduce costs and preserve frontline services. Thames Valley Police declined to comment.
Andrew Haldenby, director of Reform, a think-tank, said: “The election of the police and crime commissioners put a break [sic] on outsourcing but there is now life in the market. It’s important that police forces are starting to club together to do deals.”
About eight police forces have already outsourced their custody suites. Reliance, which is now owned by Capita, had held the Thames Valley contract but the deal expired in April, since when the announcement of the new winner has been delayed.
Police outsourcing became highly politicised last year after the West Midlands and Surrey forces dropped a mooted £1.5bn deal, after concerns were raised about the inclusion of operational police duties such as patrols.
The election in November of police and crime commissioners, who have responsibility for procuring services, meant progress stalled further as the PCCs settled into their roles. However, a study by the University of Leeds found that fewer than a third of PCCs said in their manifestos that they opposed outsourcing to the private sector.
Companies argue that much of the political controversy is unwarranted and that the biggest savings come from administrative improvements rather than operational and frontline services. Staff costs account for about 80 per cent of police expenditure.
However, experts say the controversy may mean that police forces pursue smaller, less noticeable deals on a piecemeal basis. “In the new environment, police forces will do deals separately or in coalitions of the willing,” said Mr Haldenby. “Some deals may be relatively small but at least the market is opening up.”
Private sector providers have already been used extensively by some forces.
Lincolnshire police is expected imminently to publish a report on the first year of its 10-year partnership with G4S. The £200m contract involved the transfer of half the force’s civilian staff to the private security company, in a deal that encompassed the widest spectrum of services offered in a single contract by a British police authority.
But the deal had been preceded by smaller administrative ones. In June 2010, Cleveland entered into a 10-year outsourcing arrangement with Steria for the provision of IT, call handling, criminal justice and finance-related services.
Meanwhile, Hampshire already has a partnership with the Thames Valley Police that covers IT as well as dogs, firearms and roads policing. A recent report into police custody in Hampshire by the Ministry of Justice found that their cells showed significant signs of “wear and tear”.
G4S recently pioneered a new form of custody provision in which mobile units are delivered by crane and “bolted on” to existing cells. The system – now in place in Boston, Lincolnshire – allows forces to expand their custody capacity at short notice in response to events.
This idea was suggested in Scotland during April 2008 but the response then from Kenny MacAskill, the justice secretary, was: “We don’t think privately run police custody facilities are any different to privately run prisons, and we don’t support them.”