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In Focus: Privatisation And Forgotten Staff

Staff members bearing the brunt of police privatisation are increasingly disenfranchised – but unions are predicting that the arrival of PCCs could make life uncomfortable for the government

Police outsourcing has become a controversial and emotive issue for many within in the Police Service – and the source of often bitter exchanges between the likes of staff associations and government ministers.

There have been claims that privatisation is an attack on the office of constable and that morale has been sent spinning to an all-time low. Most recently, in the wake of the fiasco surrounding G4S and the firm’s Olympic staffing issue, the Federation said that private organisations could not be trusted with public services.

But little has been made of the effect of outsourcing on police staff – even though this is the group being affected by the transfer of services to security companies.

The public sector union Unison says the issue is deeply affecting its 40,000 members who work alongside officers and their morale has taken a hammering.

With disparaging terms such as “back-office staff” being banded around by those in favour of outsourcing, it is not difficult to understand why there is disaffection. Police staff are the prime targets of privatisation and it is them – and not officers – that have to bear the most immediate consequences of change.

Ben Priestley (pictured), the Unison Police Lead, said outsourcing had a number of hidden pitfalls. “The Police Service is a 24-hour emergency service and it is difficult when you try to deliver everything through a specific contract,” he added.

“Unless it (a duty or service) is in the contract, it doesn’t get done and if it isn’t, you have to pay ‘an arm and a leg’ to get it done.

“We are fundamentally opposed in principle to companies making a profit out of public services. We don’t believe there is credible evidence that the private sector can do things better that the public sector. They may do things cheaper – but that may not necessarily mean they are doing things better.”

Although opposed to privatisation, Unison has been forced to take a “two-track approach” for the benefit of its police staff members. It opposes proposals to outsource – but if such moves are implemented the union will work with the private companies concerned to ensure it can still effectively represent members.

This is now happening at Lincolnshire Police, after 580 staff members were moved into the employment of G4S. National and local framework agreements are being hammered out to establish a formal relationship and how the union and firm will relate to each other at branch level and nationwide.

Mr Priestley said G4S had shown promise in its approach to union representation so far, despite being criticised for its failure to deliver sufficient Olympic security guards. “It is a company that we believe we can do business with,” he added.

“They are a company that has established relationships with trade unions – there are some private companies working in this field which we couldn’t say that about.

“We want to strengthen our relationship with G4S because it is quite possible that they will increase their interests in areas we have interests in.”

He added: “A framework codifies the way the company and the union will relate to each other – it is how you would expect a company and union to work together.”

On the political scene, however, the privatisation issue has now extended to the election of Police and Crime Commissioners after Surrey Police Authority abandoned its search for a private partner with West Midlands Police – claiming the PCC candidates in its area would campaign against it.

The elections are scheduled for November and it is widely believed more police authorities will follow suit by dropping any potential outsourcing plan.

“Police privatisation will become a toxic issue during those elections,” Mr Priestley said. “It is interesting now that there are even Tory candidates seeking to distance themselves from it.

“Who wants to stand for a message that says ‘we are going to cut your Police Service to the bone and send (the services) on to a private company’?”

Mr Priestley said it appeared police authorities had had an epiphany over the issue.

“The government is clearly promoting the police privatisation drive. I think police authorities have realised that pursuing it in advance of the PCC elections was not credible, ethical or moral.

“Policing by consent is a cherished institution in the UK. Privatisation threatens that – moving from policing by consent to policing for profit,” said Mr Priestley.

Whether outsourcing can be dropped out of political expediency alone – or it will still be needed in a move to mitigate the deep funding cuts stemming from the Comprehensive Spending Review remains to be seen.

What is clear, however, is that police staff – the numbers of whom have been decimated by funding cuts – have borne the brunt of the reform agenda. It may yet transpire that the role of the much-debated – but less defined – role of the back office is far more crucial to the front-line than has yet been acknowledged.

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