The argument put forward by the West Midlands and Surrey forces in putting out a £1.5bn contract for greater private sector involvement in policing is that it would allow private companies to carry out routine and repetitive tasks at cheaper rates whilst allowing highly trained and professional police officers to concentrate more time on key activities which require their skills and expertise. An enticing idea, but in practice full of pitfalls. There is the fraught question of where to draw the line between the work of a warranted officer and that of imported civilian personnel, and if this is left to individual chief constables there are likely to be wide variations across the country leading perhaps to lack of cross-force cooperation. But wherever the line is drawn, there will be the risk of privatisation creep without public understanding or approval. Indeed perhaps the central issue is, do the public really want this? Their desire to get assurance from the visible presence of uniformed officers on the beat will be thwarted. Should a major reform of this kind go ahead without some clear indication of public consent?
Senior police officers have made clear that this privatisation project is driven strongly by central government, not by the police themselves. For the ideologues in the Tory party the current crisis presents the perfect opportunity for shrinking the State, even the inner core of the security services, which even Thatcher would never have dared touch before. With the super-rich 1% left unencumbered whose £137bn gains over just the last 2 years could alone have paid off the total budget deficit and thus avoided any cuts at all, enforcing 20% cuts across all public services including the police and cutting 16,000 police jobs offered the perfect scenario to ram through large chunks of policing privatisation which previously they would never have got away with in their wildest dreams.
But will it even make the big money savings touted? It has to be remembered that the private management of prisons has certainly failed to impress. Would the public be any more impressed by non-police amateurs guarding prisoners, searching woodlands, preparing witness statements, and providing intelligence analysis to murder inquiries? On the other hand, if these tasks are going to be undertaken by well-trained and skilled personnel recruited from outside, the pay rate required may well leave little or no room for any savings.