Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006

K-Ching! K-Ching!

That’s The Sound Of The Police

The privatisation of public security and policing

February 2001

A private security firm, who leapt to prominence in the 1990s by providing ‘heavies’ to protect road building projects, has been cast in the flagship role of the Government’s creeping privatisation of police.

Bristol based Reliance Custodial Services, who are contracted to transport prisoners around the South West of England, were awarded a government Charter Mark on February 13 for their “caring, humane approach… to staff customers and the wider community”.

The award, which the company nominated itself for, was described as “a pat on the back” by Reliance spokeswoman Charmyn Hall, who said the company hoped it would give them greater status in the eyes of the public.

It came just weeks after the company closed a £90 million deal to provide custody services for the entire Sussex region. The Police Authority have described the scheme, which will see 24 existing police stations closed and replaced by a half dozen privately managed custody centres, as their “most wide reaching” Private Finance Initiative (PFI) scheme.

Apart from the South West contract, the company’s only other experience in this field is a 15 man pilot project in West Mercia - reported, by that force, to have had “teething troubles” - and a five year contract, which was terminated not long after it began, to operate an electronic tagging scheme in Southern England. Sussex Police Authority described the company as the “market leader in police support services”.

Graham Alexander of Sussex Police Federation told SQUALL: “We have deep reservations about PFI.” He said the reduction in police stations will increase journey times from the scene to custody, meaning less police time on the streets (the Police Authority are looking at contracting out this role too). “If it’s a cost cutting exercise, it’s fraught with danger,” said Alexander.

The project is unlikely to save much public money, as the Government is already subsidising the scheme to the tune of £34 million. Home Secretary, Jack Straw, is in favour privatising many police duties. He has often been backed by high ranking officers, including the former HM Inspector of Constabulary, Sir Geoffrey Dear - now a Reliance Director.

Reliance’s recent Charter Mark is reminiscent of a suggestion in 1998 by Surrey Chief Constable Ian Blair, that beat officers could be replaced by “kitemarked” Security patrols.

Sussex police are keen to turn round criticisms that they are underachieving. “[We] are in the bottom quartile [of Home Office figures] for arrests per 100 officers,” Sarah O’Connor of Sussex Police Authority told Stephen Nathan, editor of Prison Privatisation Report International. “We have to increase arrests by 53 per cent”.

Payment to Reliance will be linked to the rate of prisoner turnover. Nathan is dubious if private sector priorities match the public’s. “If the police fail to meet their targets, will staffing levels be cut to protect profits?” he asks. He was also concerned about monitoring of custody procedures, as a single monitor is proposed for all six centres.

Human rights solicitor Mike Schwartz described the encroachment of the private sector into policing as “unconstitutional”.

“Imprisonment and the use of force against people are so fundamental to their basic liberty that they cannot be trusted to commercial organisations,” he told SQUALL. “A justice system should be directly accountable to the people not to company shareholders”.

Reliance Security, another arm of the same company group, was heavily condemned in the mid 1990s for their ‘policing’ of road protests against the M11 link and bypasses for Newbury and Batheaston. The firm, who admitted receiving Special Branch intelligence on protesters, was employing men with violent criminal records, who were then assaulting non-violent activists.

Charmyn Hall was quick to distance Reliance Custodial from the Group’s Security wing. “Our staff do six weeks training, not two days,” she said.

“Basic police training is two years,” said an unimpressed Graham Alexander. “Custody officers then undergo further specialist training. If the training [of Reliance’s staff] is flawed it will have a huge effect on the administration of justice”.

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For more on the association of police with private companies check ‘Corporate Cops’ - July-2000