PUT THE U.K POLICE ON THE FRONT LINES & PRIVATIZE THE REST
Put police on the front line and privatise the rest
There is no shortage of police in London – it’s just that they are seldom where they are most needed
06 March 2012
If you want to see your MP at the House of Commons nowadays you will have to brave some 37 police officers, a body scanner, a bag scanner, a body search, two turnstiles and seven sub-machine guns, four of them brandished recklessly inside a confined space.
That is before you reach the central lobby, the safest place on earth yet still needing three more policemen to guard it. Putin’s Kremlin is as open as Starbucks in comparison. British MPs are like Olympics officials. They know who are the most important people: themselves.
There is now a proposal to hand over far more police work to the private sector. Trials are being started and contracts let in Surrey and the West Midlands, and may spread to the Met. The intention is to achieve that mission of our age, “back of house” efficiency to protect “the front line”, while getting a 20 per cent cut in costs.
The assumption that the private sector must be more efficient than the public is naive: look at Railtrack or defence procurement. But the reverse assumption is no less so. Most, if not all, public services are badly run because they have long relied on public sympathy to press weak politicians constantly to increase their resources. Meanwhile, private security is everywhere, in neighbourhood patrols, private guards, locksmiths and designer pepper sprays.
The Met force has long been inefficient. Whenever central government tells it to cut its overheads, currently by no more than back to 2006 levels, it howls that crime will soar, terrorists proliferate, riots break out and the Olympics be spoilt. No one dares gainsay it. Even to suggest that constables might patrol safe areas singly rather than in pairs, as in the old days, has the police unions pleading everything from stress to health and safety.
There is no shortage of police in London, just in the places where you most want them. Numbers rose between 2000 and 2008 from just under 26,000 to over 31,000, after Ken Livingstone as mayor curried votes by throwing money at numbers, no questions asked. Under Boris Johnson they have stabilised at about 32,000. But the madcap politics of policing requires the uniformed total to be maintained while budgets are cut, which means highly trained police doing more clerical and menial jobs, while everyone and everything else is slashed.
As Lord Blair, previous chief of the Met, wrote in the Guardian yesterday, this means lines of policemen on woodland searches, standing guard over prisoners, taking down witness statements in longhand and checking paper records for murder inquiries.
This is in addition to the ludicrous numbers who spend all day sitting in vans around inner-London waiting for something to happen, or turning the Palace of Westminster into a police training camp. Politicians apparently demand “real” policemen to protect them rather than the private guards used by most offices nowadays.
Supporting privatisation, Blair called for an end to the “tired slogan of raising officer numbers rather than improving results”. Police time should focus on the tasks requiring police training. The difficulty is to identify what the public wants this to mean.
A recent BBC programme reported that 25 per cent of police time was spent substituting for failures of other public agencies and institutions, such as schools, hospitals, traffic controllers and social workers. Time is spent combating drunkenness and anti-social behaviour, and on liaison work which, in most European cities, is performed by mayors and local councillors.
Londoners say they like the police because they want security — ever more of it. It is when security appears to decline, whatever the crime figures say, that they get restive. Like many, if not most, Londoners I am cursed by car crime in which the police show no interest, beyond passing my details to ambulance-chaser lawyers. Thieves go down the street most nights, using instruments to unlock cars or smash windows, either driving them away or stealing whatever is inside. If my neighbourhood mafia boss were to knock on my door with a contract to secure my property, I would sign it on the spot.
Private nocturnal patrols are proliferating in wealthier parts of town. Oxford Street is policed by four different uniforms: store guards, business improvement district patrols, community support officers and the proper police. In this array, what is so special about the police? Why not privatise all street patrols and leave police in their cars, where they like to be anyway?
As with the NHS, the concept of a “public” service requiring public officials to supply it is out of date. Big has become bureaucratic rather than beautiful. Very large organisations prove institutionally resistant to change, developing restrictive practices among managers as well as staff. Overtime in the Met is so generous that 3,700 officers now take their regular shifts off, do overtime instead and are registered as having second jobs, probably a wild underestimate. Yet no politician dares saying he or she will cut down numbers, for fear of “endangering security”.
Under the baleful influence of a succession of home secretaries, police forces are drowned in targets, instructions, initiatives and paperwork. Every government promises to reduce it. None does, largely because bureaucracy invariably increases with staff numbers.
The present Home Secretary, Theresa May, has pledged to cut red-tape, yet again, but her best ally may well be Treasury cuts and privatisation. We shall see. Until that happens, I live in hope of the mafia at my door.