Is the UK sure it wants to privatize the police force?
The old guy lying across the seats was coughing up a storm, echoing around the evening at Krakow station. It didn’t sound healthy, and nor was this gentleman waiting for a train (the temperature had dropped). Eventually, to a phlemagtic soundtrack, the authorities had had enough. Two bored but bulging uniforms arrived, escorted the poor fella to the station door and booted him out. A tale repeated around the world. Except, perhaps, for one small detail. While the station is public, state owned, the guards were private, from G4S.
While our emphysema guy probably didn’t have the energy to challenge, and Poland is obviously a different country playing quite rightly by their own rules, this does, in a small way, encapsulate some of the questions about the role of private security, especially in light of the increasing desire to privatize further elements of the police forces in the UK.
Under whose authority is he being turfed out? Eventually, we can surmise, it is still the citizen’s – they have payed taxes to have laws/rules enforced by the government (one of them presumably being that you can’t attempt sleep, or cough too loudly, in a station). But the line from the taxpayer to the resultant action is much less well-defined than it was – how can it be ensured that Mr. G4S does his booting out properly? What training has he had? Who is he accountable to? His boss? His company? His company’s shareholders? Or to his fellow citizens? If there is malpractice, what is the recourse? Is it one, albeit unhealthy and homeless, private citizen against another private citizen, or would he be fighting the state? And perhaps most importantly, if the police have both a practical and symbolic role, what is the perception here?
A word about G4S . They are exactly what dystopian sci-fi movies thrive on; the tagline “securing your world” is sinister enough. They run prisons in the UK, train the armed forces, help with border control both in the UK and US, and, as they proudly state, “G4S now monitor around 12,000 people in the UK” through the electronic tagging program. Starting to sound just a little scary? Well, it’s likely that they will be prime candidates to pick up the pieces of policing we can’t seem to afford to pay for anymore.
Surely privatizing the police force is second only to the privatization of the health service in terms of confusing the role of the market and public provision. In terms of health, the idea that a company would not only try to make profit off someone’s sickness, or at the very least exploiting someone’s anxiety over sickness (recommending extra tests, for example), but be actively engaged in this search for profit is simply morally abhorrent, however it is dressed up (and however market distortions are hidden – it still comes down to rich patient, poor patient, beggar man, thief).
But surely there is a not too dissimilar moral hazard by allowing private security to engage in services we pay the government willingly (through our taxes) to provide. While an outsourcing contract between the government and a private security firm would likely have enough safeguards in place, who is really to say that, internally, in that private security firm, there won’t be incentives around number of arrests, speed of process, turnaround times, etc. All of which have nothing to do with legal protection and a lot to do with maximizing resources, maximizing revenues, and hence profits. Of course, we can sneer at this, and claim oversensitivity (‘the contract would never stipulate any of this’) but how much do you know about the G4S electronic tagging contract? Did you even know G4S was involved? Or that G4S, alongside Serco (anodynely ‘bringing service to life’) have paid almost 300 hundred thousand pounds in ‘failures to meet service levels.’ Still feeling good?
Look at it a different way. Imagine a slow week. The police would, quite happily, do nothing if there were no crimes being reported (as would doctors and nurses if no one was sick or injured). In fact, it would be measured as a success. But for a private security firm, that isn’t necessarily the case. That’s a waste of resources. That’s a drain on profits. That might not be viewed as a success. What happens then? Is work created? Or staff reassigned? Should we care?
But even imagining that G4S or Serco did a reliable and efficient job, there are still some fundamental puzzles that remain hanging. Whatever some say, we have an effective and independent police force that upholds the laws of the land. Though reputations can be tarnished, we generally have faith and trust in the police (and hence the size of the outrage when the police fail). We don’t tell our children if they are lost to approach the nearest security guard. In essence, in the UK, the police belong to us and are not generally seen as an instrument of the state (as in so many places). They are here to protect and serve. G4S doesn’t have any faith invested in them. Just money. They are a profit-machine (turnover 7 billion pounds, profit 500 million). When you lose that faith and trust, and start believing that there isn’t a police force (a force for good), but only corporations on the high streets, things start to break down (witness the first days of the riots of last summer).
And finally, what does it say, what is the perception of a country that has made its choices and now cannot afford to train or pay a proper police force?
Postscript: Our G4S station heavies went for a coffee, and in walked the returning wheezy geezer. Plus ca change.