Is austerity Britain providing the fertile soil for the government to sow a privatisation agenda in policing? Adam Crawford, Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Leeds writes:
In 2006 David Cameron (then in opposition) described the police as “the last great unreformed public service”. Cameron has form here. He was a special advisor to the government at the time of the Sheehy Review in 1993, which was the last failed attempt by a Conservative administration to subject the police to the stringencies of market disciplines.
The experience left Cameron only too aware of how difficult it can be for politicians to take on the police, and how vulnerable ministers can become if they appear to be unfairly challenging the police given their almost ‘sacred’ place in public affections as a revered national institution and key symbol of collective identity. In the end, the legacy of the early 1990s reform attempts resulted in the Police and Magistrates’ Courts Act 1994 which changed the size and composition of police authorities and ensured they had a duty to provide an ‘efficient and effective’ police force as the budget-holders. It left largely untouched the vexed questions of workforce modernisation and the separation of auxiliary from core tasks of policing; with the view that the private sector would be better placed to provide the former, leaving the police to concentrate on the latter.
Despite important changes to the police workforce introduced largely through civilianisation in the intervening years – notably the arrival of the police community support officer (PCSO) – and the incursion of private sector managerial techniques into police management, the involvement of the market itself remained marginal (Crawford 2013). The ideology of fiscal austerity ushered by the global financial crisis (since 2008) has provided the fertile soil in which to revisit the failure to implement Sheehy, in a novel and more conducive political context.
Hence, under the coalition government elected in 2010, there has been a prevailing concern for fiscal restraint in public sector finances and an ideological commitment to greater private sector involvement in the delivery of public services as the only rational response to austerity. As the political taboo of decreasing police officer numbers was abandoned by the coalition government in the light of the Comprehensive Spending Review of 2010, so the transfer to the private sector of large aspects of policing has been placed firmly on the agenda. Oliver Letwin, the minister responsible for co-ordinating government policy, articulated this new doxa, declaring that private companies “working in hospitals, police and schools” will “no longer be a matter of political debate but straightforward and obvious as a way of conducting business in this country” (cited in Mason 2012).
The scale of fiscal restraint on policing budgets is unprecedented and goes beyond the short-term spending period. HM Treasury (2012) has indicated departmental expenditure limits until 2017 and the Winsor Review (2011) forecasts severe restraint in public service finances for decades to come. Total police employees are estimated to decline by 32,300 up to 2015; a 13 per cent fall from its 2010 peak. This includes reductions of 15,600 police staff, 15,000 police constables and 1,700 PCSOs. The first year of the financial cuts witnessed the largest annual fall in police numbers in 40 years and the first annual decline in PCSOs since their introduction in 2002. These rapid declines come after a decade of unprecedented growth; public spending on policing after the turn of the millennium rose by over 20 per cent.
Significantly, by the time of the 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review, Britain had a more mature and self-confident private security industry. It was the Private Security Industry Act 2001 that did much to lay the groundwork for current conditions. It established the Security Industry Authority (SIA), launched in 2003, to license and regulate all ‘contract’ private security providers. The Act was introduced to shift the industry into the mainstream of policing services by encouraging a higher degree of professionalism and to regulate unscrupulous operators.
Regulation was a long-standing policy goal that powerful proponents within the industry had championed, as the key to greater legitimacy and hence to open the gateway to wider policing markets. John Saunders, SIA chief executive between 2003 and 2006, reflected: “The Act’s most important contribution is that it provides sound foundations for introducing fundamental change, creating a private security industry that is healthier, more successful, dynamic and fit to pursue new market opportunities. Above all, an industry that is respected and proud of its reputation.” (Saunders 2004: 6).
The implementation of the new, albeit relatively tame (within a European context) regulatory framework for the security industry – via the 2001 Act – coupled with innovative experiments in public-private partnerships has provided more fertile soil for entertaining private sector involvement in policing. Acknowledging this, the private sector has been adroit at responding to their changed fortunes. In November 2011, a roundtable meeting was held in Parliament, hosted by the British Security Industry Association (BSIA) to encourage greater private sector involvement in policing. A number of subsequent developments signalled a dramatic transition in the attitude of police managers towards private security in which the market came to be seen less as a threat to the public good and more as a possible saviour, providing opportunities for efficiency savings.
The subsequent pace of events was nothing short of breathtaking. A landmark was set by Lincolnshire Police when they signed a £200m contract with G4S in February 2012 to build and staff, for 10 years, a police station. The contract accounts for 18 per cent of the force budget, with estimated savings of £28m. It incorporates a wide range of functions, such as custody services (‘street to suite’); town enquiry officers; force control room; and a crime management bureau. Under the initiative, half the civilian staff (some 575 employees) joined the private company. When the contract was put out to tender in March 2011, some 12 companies responded with submissions, highlighting the readiness of the private sector to respond to public sector outsourcing of policing.
West Midlands and Surrey police forces followed this initiative by issuing a £1.5bn procurement tender. This joint Business Partnering for Police (BPP) initiative was supported financially, strategically and ideologically by the Home Office. The scale and breadth of the areas of policing covered in the procurement documents – including supporting victims and witnesses, managing high-risk individuals, patrolling neighbourhoods, and managing engagement with the public – left few in doubt that it represented a fundamental departure in the organisation and delivery of British policing. A West Midlands Police Authority spokesperson (cited in Travis and Williams 2012) said: “Combining with the business sector is aimed at totally transforming the way the force currently does business – improving the service provided to the public.”
By June 2012, the BBP programme had produced a shortlist of six groups to be taken forward into a further stage of tendering and negotiations. The contract notice was something of a scoping exercise both in its breadth and the fact that it was undertaken for the benefit of all police forces in England and Wales, to avoid subsequent costly procurement exercises. Subsequently, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire police all announced in June 2012 that they were considering privatising some services in an attempt to tackle a £73m funding shortfall created by government cuts.
Police authority members in the three counties were asked to consider how services including HR, finance and IT could be outsourced in line with the G4S contract in Lincolnshire as part of a joint recommendation made by the three chief constables. Similarly, in July 2012, the London Mayor, Boris Johnson revealed that huge parts of the Metropolitan Police could be privatised to cut costs.
However, publication by The Guardian newspaper in March 2012 of the Surrey/West Midlands plans prompted a public furore. In light of the ensuing public debate, both police authorities agreed to a short pause in the contracting process to build public confidence in the contracting programme and to seek to dispel the idea it was about privatising core police services. By contrast, the BSIA (2012) responded on the front foot by welcoming the opportunity to take over certain police functions.
Attempts to differentiate between ‘back-office’ staff and ‘front-line’ personnel have been central to proponents’ arguments that contracting out the former will allow police forces to dedicate more resources to the latter, enhancing public-facing police interactions. Yet, such distinctions are complex and frequently constitute something of a semantic fig leaf.
Many of the tasks identified for private contracting in recent tenders involve contact with the public in some form or other. The patrol function has already largely been civilianised and devolved from the constabulary to PCSOs, who themselves have been the subject of public-private financing initiatives. Just as the work of traffic wardens (previously police employees) was passed to local authorities and private contractors, so the work of other police staff following the Lincolnshire experiment has been handed over to private companies like G4S. PCSOs may soon be in line for similar private management.
In June 2012, David Taylor-Smith, the head of G4S for the UK and Africa, predicted that private companies would be running large parts of the British police service within five years, driven by a combination of “budgetary pressure and political will” (Taylor and Travis 2012). However, the brakes to the privatisation juggernaut were spectacularly applied when, later the same month on the eve of the Olympics, G4S announced its inability to meet the terms of its £284m contract with the government to provide 10,400 security staff for the Olympic Games in London, requiring some 3,500 members of the armed forces to stand in. The ‘G4S fiasco’ underlined that the public sector will be required to bail out private companies when they default on their contracts. That is where, and if, sufficient capacity to do so remains.
Inevitably, the more that privatisation through outsourcing bites into the provision of public safety, the more it will erode the public sector’s capability to fill the vacuum created when the market fails. The G4S saga caused some government ministers to reconsider the appropriateness of the involvement of the private sector in the delivery of certain services (Wright 2012). In the light of the G4S Olympic failure, Surrey police announced their intention to withdraw from their contract negotiations in the face of active campaigns against the move by some of the declared candidates for the Surrey police and crime commissioner (PCC) job (Travis 2012). The West Midlands Police Authority reacted to the Surrey announcement by postponing its decision on who should get the contract until after the election of their PCC.
This sudden change of events underscores both the contingent nature of developments and the volatile condition of public debate with regard to policing, given the deeply held attachment of the British public to the emblematic ‘Bobby’ as the symbol of collective identity and public order.
The irony is not lost that PCCs have arrived on the policing scene at the very time when outsourcing has been placed firmly on the agenda, against a background of unprecedented cuts to central police funding, and introduced by a government that is politically and ideologically committed to greater private sector involvement in the delivery of public services.
Professor Crawford is editor-in-chief of the journal Criminology and Criminal Justice and Director of the Security and Justice Research Group at the University of Leeds (see bss.leeds.ac.uk/security-justice/).
For more details of his work and publications, visit law.leeds.ac.uk/about/staff/crawford/
From the May edition Police Magazine – article is part one of two.