One thing Theresa May will be remembered for is her treatment of the British police. When she was Home Secretary, Mrs May brutally cut more than a fifth of all funding to police forces. The unofficial dictat was that the police should do more with less, a mystifying statement that almost guarantees a demoralised and thus compliant workforce. So is this what she wanted? Or was there another motive to this act? A political move maybe, that would begin the privatisation of Britain’s police force.
Joining us to discuss the ongoing privatisation that the police and other public services are subject to, is the activist and campaigner with South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group, John Grayson, and senior lecturer of criminology at Sheffield University, Adam White.
The one dimensional privatisation debate is always based on a simple metric. Efficiency leads to profit, which apparently is a greater benefit for everyone. But what happens when this argument is applied to public services? Especially when the private sector businesses that bid for public contracts have such a woefully bad track record.
Privatisation by outsourcing
Adam White told Renegade Inc. that within the criminal justice sector, it is important to distinguish between the kind of privatisation that involves the selling-off of state assets, and privatisation via outsourcing.
“There’s very little state selling-off of public assets to the private sector in the criminal justice system,” he says. “Most of the time, what we’re talking about is outsourcing, where the public sector is essentially the contract holder, and the private sector bids to take on that contract.”
That contract may last 10 to 15 years.
“If, for instance, you’re talking about the police who, in 2010, with the Comprehensive Spending Review, were facing a 20% budget cut, they’re at a cliff edge. They need to make rapid savings quickly. They look towards outsourcing as a way of guaranteeing those savings. Why outsourcing, rather than other options? Well, the police are very labour force heavy, about 81% of their costs go towards their labour force. So in order to make savings, they’re essentially just cutting lots of jobs and that’s problematic.”
The advantage of outsourcing is that it allows the police to set up 10-year contracts and over that decade, the contract guarantees a certain amount of savings. The Comprehensive Spending Review has guaranteed at least five years of austerity, but it’s no replacement for the tricky and often thorny problem of actually keeping the peace.
“You’re dealing a lot of the time with vulnerable victims, with risky offenders,” says White. “The problem is that when you outsource it, you have to break down that relationship into a unit cost. And then the provider – (private security company), G4S, for instance – will then be delivering those. Now, there’s a big problem there. Often individuals working for G4S are required to interact with vulnerable victims and risky offenders, and are facing real constraints in terms of what their contract allows them to do.”
John Grayson told Renegade Inc. that a report into the probation service demonstrates that because of outsourcing, parolees now have little contact with their probation officers.
“They phone in every six weeks,” he says. “It makes a point about the human dimension of what this outsourcing actually means.”
Toxic target cultures
Thanks to spreadsheet and target cultures, high risk, vulnerable criminals aren’t getting the support they need and are being sent back out into society to fare for themselves. It’s no wonder the rate of recidivism is so high.
“What we mustn’t do is assume that the public sector was getting it right all the time before outsourcing and then it’s all gone wrong,” says White. “That’s too black and white. For instance the police have a very broad mandate to deal with these individuals. They’re structurally set up to do it correctly. But they haven’t always managed to deliver it correctly. But at the same time, when it comes to the private sector delivering these goods in accordance with their assignment instructions in their contract, they sometimes get it right.”
Police officers may not be driven by the profit motive, but they are motivated by target coaches.
“Target coaches can can push private officers to approach a victim, not necessarily as a victim with a variety of needs, but rather as someone that needs to be processed in order to hit a target,” says White.
“That logic also plays out in the private sector under contractual arrangements because that’s how the key performance indicators in the contracts will work, more often than not.”
Union busting by outsourcing
Grayson told Renegade Inc. that outsourcing was designed to break the unions within the prison service which had what the government considered to be unreasonable working conditions.
“Privatisation via outsourcing actually weakens organised labour because those new people working for G4S in the prisons are on worse conditions, certainly poorer pay, than people in Her Majesty’s prison service,” he says.
“That’s another fact we’ve got to think about. I agree, there are good people working for these outsourcing companies, but it’s at the expense of the previous and other TUPE arrangements, (The Transfer of Undertakings Protection of Employment Regulations), where people can tick over for a while on the same conditions, but new recruits will always be at lower rates of pay than previous employees.
“I’m sure the Labour government thought of that, breaking the power and influence of the POA, (the Professional Trades Union for Prison, Correctional and Secure Psychiatric Workers, formerly the Prison Officers’ Association), in prisons.”
White says there are also other factors at play.
“When Lincolnshire Police signed a huge, £229 million contract with G4S that went live in April 2012, in that instance the unions were onside with this outsourcing deal because the money saved through the contract meant that it was going to protect jobs in the police force,” he said. “So the unions were onside because they saw outsourcing as a way of protecting the interests of their members.”
Whether the unions are still onside remains to be seen.
“What I can say though, to pick up on John’s really important point about TUPE, let’s say you’re working for Lincolnshire Police as a staff member and then that service area is outsourced to G4S. You will have protected employment rights as you transfer from Lincolnshire Police to G4S.
“Broadly speaking, your terms and conditions remain roughly the same. And in Lincolnshire Police there are 575 individuals who are TUPE’d over from Lincolnshire Police to G4S. These individuals have worked for 10, 20 years for Lincolnshire Police and they’re very much part of the public service ethos. When they suddenly became G4S employees, they don’t change all of a sudden. They certainly had different contractual arrangements surrounding them and that will have impacted upon their activities. But when someone comes into a police station from counter, when someone calls up 999, they don’t necessarily change immediately how they deal with people.”
White worked for Lincolnshire police G4S strategic partnership for about 18 months after it went live. He says you could begin to discern real changes amongst those individuals who had TUPE’d over.
“I think an interesting question as well is, as they leave the organisation, the new people coming in don’t necessarily have that same background of working for Lincolnshire Police. And they will be on different terms and conditions. What that does is break up established working patterns.
“The important point is that when outsourcing does take place, we’re looking at a gradual transformation, not necessarily a spark that completely shifts from the public sector to the private sector and a complete change in logic.”
Government & the business state
John Grayson has spent a good deal of time looking at G4S, a company with an ‘interesting’ history.
“It has some roots in Denmark,” he says. “G4S is listed on both the Copenhagen and London stock exchange. In the UK, they’ve grown on the basis of a kind of international presence, because they also grew in the United States. They have reason to be the world’s largest security company, with between 550,000 – 600,000 employees, with, they claim, interest in over 100 countries. The major growth in the UK was fuelled by policies of conservative governments in the 1990s, and the Tony Blair, New Labour kind of philosophy of a neoliberal economy.
“We became the most advanced neoliberal state in Europe under old Tony for all sorts of reasons.
“One of the keys to the growth of outsourcing, and G4S in particular, is what I call their relationship to the business state. In 2009, John Reid, who is now Lord Reid, was taken on as a consultant by G4S while he was still an MP. Lord Condon who was Metropolitan Police Commissioner ended up on the board of G4S. Adam Crozier, head of ITV, was on the board of G4S up until two years ago. The present chair of G4S, John Connolly, was the International Chair of Deloitte for years.
“The embedding of these companies within the establishment and political life, that is the key. People say ‘why do they still get the contracts?’. They’re confident about it because in fact it has been set up as a result of negotiations with the government.”
White says the influence of ‘old boy’ networks is “just the way business is done”, these days.
“It’s a key part of winning contracts,” he says. “When you look at the boards of big security companies – and big companies generally – you do find political links in order to lobby and influence old boy networks.
That’s just the way business is done.”
Security companies, Serco and G4S are both being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office for the tagging scandal.
Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, was charged with looking into tens of millions of pounds worth of overcharging on electronic tagging contracts for offenders, many of whom had moved abroad, were back in prison, who had their tags removed, and in some cases, had died.
“They were tagging people who were either dead or didn’t exist,” said Grayson. “G4S had to pay back £110 million or so because of that to the government.
“They had to pay about £5.6 million in 2013 for the state of the housing they were provided in the contract. They get fined, they get exposed, but they still get the contract.”
White says this brings us back to the issue of competition, or the complete lack of it.
“Part of the logic underpinning outsourcing is that, okay the government is going to put out this contract to tender. Lots of bidders will come in and through a competitive dialogue, the best deal will be put on the table.
“But if there’s total monopoly, there are only two or three companies that can realistically bid for this deal and bring it to fruition. Is that really market competition? It’s not exactly rigorous.”
That’s the point of a monopoly position. What they’re doing is rent-seeking from the government by influencing decisions, changing legislation and lobbying. Which brings up another point: Can these big companies look after the weak and the vulnerable if their drive is fundamentally profit driven? Are they structurally capable of actually looking after the smaller person?
“I’ve got one example, in Lincolnshire police, when the force control room was initially outsourced to G4S,” says White. “The force control room that deals with 999 calls, they managed to increase the response rate to fewer than 10 seconds. I spoke to a police officer who was involved in the force control room and he very honestly and frankly said to me that while I may have my own philosophical problems with G4S doing this, if someone’s getting their head kicked in on the street, and they need to call 999 in order to get the police on the scene, what G4S has done is to enable the police officer to get there quicker.
“There are structural issues with outsourcing these really complex goods. However it doesn’t mean that good practice can’t go on, and it doesn’t mean that good things can’t happen.”
G4S employs more than 50,000 people in the United States and Canada. They provide security for governments, major corporations, airports, universities, hospitals, banks, residential communities and more. It is also heavily involved in some rather unsavoury activities, including policing the Dakota Access Pipeline.
White told Renegade Inc. that public sector institutions are set up to deliver a better service, but it doesn’t mean that the individuals on the ground delivering those services are better, more upright people.
“I think there are structural problems in the private sector delivering these services but it doesn’t mean people on the ground are necessarily morally corrupt,” he says. “For me that’s where a big grey area lies. We can talk about contracts, public sector, private sector but also you’re talking about individuals on the ground dealing with vulnerable people.”
Privatisation without limits
Former Metropolitan Police Detective Chief Inspector, Peter Kirkham, now works as a police in services and security management consultant. He told Renegade Inc. there is a role for privatisation, but it needs to be well defined and limited.
“The first concern I have is where the contracts are given to mega-corporations, the G4S, the Sercos of this world, the outsourcing ‘specialists’,” he said. “They might be specialists in taking on outsourced services. What they’re not expert at is delivering those specific services.
“If you have a massive contract given to the private sector and the company you’ve given it to collapses, you’ve got a real problem for the police service.
“Policing cannot take that risk. It cannot suddenly not be able to do a big chunk of its work.”
The other issue relates to what roles are suitable for privatisation, particularly specialist roles.
“For instance, the specialist search officers that you see on their hands and knees at homicide crime scenes. The private sector could say to the police service, ‘we are a specialist search team. If you want to buy our services, here’s the deal’. They could work with the police on making sure all the standards were there, and all the vettings done, and everything else. A particular police service would buy them in to do the searches they needed, and when they didn’t want them, they wouldn’t be paying for them. But it needs to be a very specialist, probably relatively small company that is agile, that is responsive to police needs and that isn’t four or five layers of profit down as a subcontractor to some major contractor, like your Sercos and G4S’s.”
Breaches, cover-ups & the power of arrest
Grayson told Renegade Inc. that target culture often results in breaches of contract being ignored, or worse.
“One of the things that they do, because sometimes they get sanctioned in terms of fines on these contracts for particular breaches, is they simply cover that up,” he says.
“For instance, in terms of asylum housing, G4S have invented a particular definition to make sure that they don’t have many complaints. I won’t go into how they do it. It takes some time.
“The target culture, I’m afraid, actually means that it encourages these companies to actually not tell the truth about what is happening.”
White says it also encourages the same lies and deception within public sector institutions as well.
“The markets logic that is brought into the management of public services is a key part of neoliberalism,” he says. “So what we could be arguing here is that neoliberalism is the big problem in relation to the public and private sector.”
Another dimension to add here is the power of arrest. Police are often dealing with volatile, vulnerable, often incredibly scared people. Giving G4S staff, or any other private operator, the power of arrest is an absolute tinderbox.
“Private security officers across the land have been using their universal power of arrests for decades,” says White. “What’s different now is we’re talking about warranted powers being transferred to private security officers. So again, it’s an important distinction to make.
“So is the idea of a private security officer making an arrest ‘a tinderbox’? I think you’ve got to put that against the backdrop of all the arrests they have made over the years and say, ‘well, we’re not having a national debate about private security officers using universal power of arrest in a shopping mall’. So, to what extent is it different when we’re talking about delivering Criminal Justice Services?”
Watch the full episode above to find out how to remedy the privatisation of public services, particularly as it relates to asylum markets.
An extended invitation
Following on from our conversations with G4S for their Right To Reply on the issues raised in the episode, the team at Renegade Inc. have asked G4S to join us for a show – at their date and convenient location. We would like to ask the questions about G4S and their way of operating on government awarded contracts as UK taxpayers. Watch above for our request. We will let you know if we have any response from their Head of Media.