In early March this year a story was ran in a major UK newspaper about the death of a man being transported in an ambulance by private security company G4S. It had been proposed by the UK government that private security companies could win contracts that would see them take over functions, at present carried out by the police force. One of the proposed suggestions was to allow private companies to ferry suspects from where they are arrested into police custody.
G4S the largest player in the private security industry, reputedly favoured to win these contracts, ended up losing out, seemingly as a result of negative publicity surrounding their inability to fulfil their security obligations for the 2012 London Olympics. This may turn out to be just a temporary reprieve however, given the trend for successive UK governments to favour privatisation, it seems as though it will not be long before it is back on the agenda.
We know the police force as the enforcing arm of the state, their primary purpose being to keep the population an arm’s length from the people governing their lives. In theory however, they do provide an important function and are there to be called upon by any citizen should the need arise. They even have an, albeit flawed, Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) to investigate when a member of the public is mistakenly shot dead, racially abused, assaulted or unlawfully detained, and in theory prosecute officers that are found to have acted illegally.
Some might argue that G4S taking over police functions would not make too much difference. The G4S group already has one well-documented death in custody and at least one incident of its staff racially abusing immigrants to its name. So the replacement of one set of thugs with another might not bring about too many changes. There is however the question of accountability.
The police force is, at least in theory, accountable to the public, whereas private security companies are only, accountable to their own shareholders. There has been talk amongst ministers of setting up a body similar to the IPCC for private security companies. It has been hinted that this might become a priority should a private company take over police functions. In the example however of G4S, they already provide security at airports and prisons in the UK without the existence of such a body.
The single motivation of private companies is profit. They are in trouble only when they have not made a large enough return for their shareholders. Private companies will only compete for the government contracts offered if they believe a profit can be made from it. Surely the government would only offer these contracts in the first place if it believed it would help them make a saving, most likely by avoiding those ‘inconveniences’ that the public sector brings, such as pensions and sick pay.
As such one of the following statements must be true. Either the contracted amount to be paid to a private company on it taking over police functions will be greater than the amount budgeted for the same functions by the police, or it will be less.
If it is the former, the point of the proposal needs to be questioned at a time when the government is making every effort to cut social spending. If the amount spent by the government is going to increase then it must be seen as purely ideological, with David Cameron’s government committing to continuing the work of the previous UK governments by trying to privatise everything.
If the latter is true then corners will have to be cut, we already know this is what any private company will do when taking over a public function. It may be dubbed ‘improved efficiency’ but the effect will be the same. This is the only way a private company can turn a profit. At present the police force is overstretched and underfunded, when habitual strike-breakers and petit-fascists like the police deem an anti-cuts protest necessary, as they did in 2012, things must be getting pretty tight. A company taking over a tight budget and seeking to make a profit will have to make cuts, maybe lower wages, inferior training, less effective or safe equipment. Their profit will have to come from somewhere.
As an example of corners being cut we can take for example the fate of an Aboriginal man being transported in 2009 by the Australian security company GSL (later acquired by G4S). The man in question was being transported in a van with no provision for water or air-conditioning. Predictably he succumbed to heatstroke and died. In this example costs must have been cut. Either by way of the lack of provision for the needs of the man being transported, or during the training of the staff involved in the incident. Presumably they were not made aware that a person subject to such conditions can die.
In the offices of corporations and private companies a unique calculation known as a cost/benefit analysis takes place. This is simply where a decision is made on the basis of the financial expense of each possibility. The example given in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club is that of a motor company deciding whether to recall a faulty model of car, or to simply compensate the relatives of the deceased whenever someone is incinerated in their car as a result of the fault. The protagonist of the story explains that the company will proceed with whichever option costs the company the least money. In real life this has been well documented, particularly in the motor industry.
Taking the example of the unfortunate Aboriginal man, is it more cost-effective for a private security company to maintain a fleet of air-conditioned vans or to pay compensation every time someone dies in a non-air-conditioned one? This calculation will have to be made. Say for example, someone arrested by the police then passed into the hands of a private company became ill or injured. Is it more cost-effective for the security company to ensure each of its staff have sufficient medical training and knowledge to prevent such an incident from occurring, or simply to pay compensation should an incident like this come to pass? This calculation will have to be made.
Alongside the projected savings the UK government will make to its public spending there may exist an ulterior motive for moving toward privatisation. Members of the force protested over budget cuts, and for a long time policing has been a profession without a reserve pool of labour to threaten their positions. The government’s line towards the constabularies may soon be that should they get uppity about such luxuries as pensions, sick leave, maternity leave, sufficient resources to operate safely, they can be replaced by a private company who can do the same job for cheaper. Perhaps this means that one day we will see a private security company break a police strike or police a police protest.
If policing is to become a private business, no private company will wish to diminish its profits or put itself out of business. They will never seek to tackle/eradicate the causes of crime, as doing so would lose them revenue. The French office of Wolfhunter Royal (who were paid by the carcass and afforded extra funds during periods of serious lupine disturbance) always stopped short of eradicating France’s wolf population entirely. Doing so would also remove their lucrative and privileged positions. Although the current police force would not seek to put itself out of a profession, for a private company more crime would simply mean more profit. If just for this reason alone the idea of privatising police services must be seen as a terrible and dangerous one.