How should Labour Commissioners deal with the Government’s privatisation agenda?

The scale of the cuts being imposed on policing by the ConDem Government means that some Chief Constables and Police Authorities are looking at large-scale privatisation to save money. This is clearly wrong – but could well happen without strong Labour Commissioners. The Tory agenda in relation to policing is pretty similar to that with schools and hospitals – they don’t value public service and public servants and have a blind faith in the power of the market.

There is a solution, however. Chief Constables will not be allowed to enter into any contract without the permission of the Police & Crime Commissioner . This is a key concession that Labour achieved through the passage of the Bill – but it means that  Commissioners need to set out some clear principles, not just argue against it and end up in a major conflict when they are told there is no alternative.  A knee-jerk reaction that we should never enter into any private contracts is not good enough. It is a false promise because there will always be some contracts – IT suppliers, uniform suppliers and new vehicles for example – where in house provision just doesn’t make sense. But if saying “no” isn’t enough, neither is “maybe”. We need to give clear guidance to Chief Constables and to voters on what is and is not likely to be acceptable.

If I am elected as Commissioner, there are four tests which I would apply to any proposal:

1)      Will it improve public confidence?

2)      Will it deliver a more efficient service? – which is not the same as cheaper

3)      What impact will it have on jobs?

4)      What happens when things go wrong?

I cannot see any circumstances where public confidence in the policing of North Wales is going to improve if core policing operations, such as patrolling neighbourhoods, investigating crimes and responding to incidents were privatised. These  core policing tasks should always be undertaken by public servants. That doesn’t mean that everything to do with these functions has to be done by a warranted police officer. In North Wales 40% of the police workforce are now civilian staff, which includes PCSOs. The number of PCSOs is set to rise significantly thanks to funding from the Welsh Government. In some forces the ratio of civilian staff to police officers is much higher. Using civilian staff makes sense – you employ someone with the specific skills required for a particular role instead of the full range of experience and training that are required by a police officer of a particular rank – which may include less experience of the particular specialism.

I think there are important differences between the standards we expect of an employee and what we expect from a private contractor. The private contractor’s first loyalty is to their shareholders –employees are public servants and see themselves as such. So I don’t buy Ian Blair’s argument that anything that isn’t done by a warranted officer can be privatised – there are some things where the public expect the function to be carried out by a public servant and rightly so.

There may, of course, be circumstances where it makes sense to buy in extra capacity – whether from other forces, their contractors, or direct from contractors – to meet a short term need. I would expect the Chief Constable to make a strong case for this – and to agree with him or her the circumstances in which it would be used and the safeguards to be put in place to ensure that we don’t end up with creeping privatisation.

My second test is whether the service will be more efficient – what matters is what works. But let’s be clear: that isn’t the same as cheaper. A lot of privatisation has involved companies making profits not through innovation but by reducing quality, or by reducing employees’ terms and conditions, and that’s wrong. Instead of contracting with the private sector on a minimum specification, work with the staff and managers in the service to find ways of cutting costs while maintaining quality. That way you will retain flexibility to change again and will secure all of the saving instead of a large proportion going to the private company’s bottom line.

There have been a number of studies which showed that improvement and innovation came from change in management – from in-sourcing a function as much as out-sourcing. So instead of thinking about privatisation why not start by seconding someone to run an improvement project for six months and seeing what they come up with. Advertise the secondment internally, be clear what you want, involve the workforce and put the effort into managing the project properly. The cost will probably be less than running a major procurement exercise and can be a way of energising staff instead of demoralising them. It is part of the co-operative approach: treating your workforce as your ally in delivering a service instead of the enemy. In a policing context, it means working with the associations that represent uniformed officers as well as trade unions.

There will be circumstances where a Commissioner is asked to agree to a contract on the basis that the service was previously outsourced. You will want to ensure that all options are properly considered – bringing the service back in-house, developing a joint service with other forces/public sector organisations, developing a co-operative model. This needs to be done before commencing the procurement process – so you need to tell the Force that this is what you will expect or you will find yourself being bounced into a new contract (possibly costing much more than previously) simply because there isn’t time to do anything else.

There are services which are provided by voluntary organisations or other public sector agencies where the legal advice will be that a full tendering process is required. It is important to be clear what you and the Force are looking for e.g. if recruiting volunteers is a key part of the service make sure that you will be able to test the ability of a private company to do this and include this in the criteria for awarding the contract. Will people be as willing to volunteer for a private company? If not, a cheaper price may not deliver better value. The requirements of voluntary organisations, co-operatives and small businesses can often be overlooked in the tendering process – their involvement needs to be actively encouraged and needless barriers identified and removed.

My third test is the impact on jobs. Policing by consent means that the police are part of the community. If you outsourced a function and the jobs moved to somewhere else, they won’t be part of the local community any more, so they won’t bring local knowledge to their work. The Government’s proposals for regional pay are an abject failure to look at the bigger picture. We know that our local economy has been hit hard by the Government’s economic policies – if you then reduce the pay of everyone in the public sector, there will be a knock-on effect which will be disastrous.

TUPE regulations are supposed to ensure that the days when a contractor could come in and slash terms and conditions are over. But in practice the protection is limited to the point of transfer. Do you really want to hand over employee relations to a contractor rather than thinking through what matters in the long term? A private company that decides to slash terms and conditions may  be able to increase profits over the period of the contract, particularly in a recession when alternative jobs are few and far between – but in the process morale will take a knock and the long term prospects for recruiting and retaining high quality individuals will suffer.

Where you do agree to enter into a contract, you need to  ensure that social obligations are in place. This can include specifying that all jobs must be advertised locally and training given, participation in apprenticeship schemes, trade unions recognition, language choice must be respected, employees must receive a living wage etc. Responsible employers won’t have a problem with giving commitments on these issues and I wouldn’t want to contract with those who didn’t.

My fourth test is what happens when things go wrong. If the contractor fails, how easy will it be for you to walk away from the contract? Will you have the rights to the data needed to rebuild an in-house service? What notice period will be required on either side and what penalty clauses will apply? And it’s not just about total failure. Being clear what complaints regime the company will offer matters: to what extent can they be held to account for mistakes? Will they be required to publish detailed information in the same way as if the service was in-house? If you didn’t specify it in the contract, you will have no control over these issues. That doesn’t mean that you need to write the bureaucratic details – but you can say that the Freedom of Information Act will apply and that their complaints procedures will need to be agreed with you.

Finally, it is important to be as open about the process as possible. There are stages where confidentiality is essential – but all too often this is used as a reason to keep everything under wraps. It is absolutely right to keep the workforce and their trade unions involved and informed throughout. It also makes sense to brief the Police and Crime Panel, in confidence where appropriate. Wherever documents can be made public, they should be. So for example, you can’t say what price each of the bidders is offering or name them before the contract is awarded – but that’s no reason not to consult on the specification for a contract or the criteria for contract award. If there are elements which need to be kept confidential because the information could assist criminals, fine – but too often that is used as an excuse for keeping everything under wraps.

After all, if you can’t convince your workforce, the Panel and the public that you are doing the right thing, there is a strong possibility that you are not.

Update – 23 October 2012

I thought it was worth updating this page with a flavour of the national debate on privatisation.

Since writing the above article, we have had the debacle over the G4S Olympic contract. I think my tests made sense in that context – clearly those negotiating the contract  failed to think through what happened if the contract went wrong – but  the Home Office realised belatedly that what mattered was public confidence. As it turned out, the opportunity for the armed forces and police officers to interact with the public was positive. If there had been an active decision to do this from the start, it would have been possible to organise shift patterns and leave accordingly and to cover the costs of overtime instead of having a last minute panic and disrupting the personal lives of public servants and their families.

At the Labour Party Conference there were many opportunities for Police & Crime Commissioner candidates and others to voice their opposition to privatisation and it is clear that this resonates with the public. I didn’t hear anyone in the Labour Party express the contrary view – indeed G4S told us that they are also against the privatisation of frontline policing and wouldn’t bid for such contracts. But it remains important to have a clear methodology for considering what can and cannot be considered for privatisation. I was pleased to hear a similar position from Yvette Cooper, Shadow Home Secretary. The full text of her speech is available here but the section dealing with privatisation is below:

We need reform. After discussion with Lord Stevens, I believe we need a new stronger Police Standards Authority – replacing the IPCC — to raise standards, pursue powerful investigations and ensure there are proper safeguards in place.

But Tory reforms won’t improve policing, cut crime or help communities. Quite the opposite.

Ministers are pushing for big private contracts to replace the work police do. Nothing ruled out. Not even detective work or neighbourhood patrols.

Forces pushed to sign massive contracts with a single company.

Has this Government learned nothing from the Olympics?

Public private partnerships can be valuable – new contracts will be needed for example on information technology.

But contracts must pass tough tests:

– on value for money;

– on resilience and security;

– on transparency and accountability;

– and most of all on public trust.

And for the Labour Party, and for people across the country, there are red lines – or perhaps we should say blue lines.

Policing by consent means the police need the confidence of the public.

And the public need to trust that policing is being done in the interests of the justice not the corporate balance sheet.

And let’s be blunt about this. We don’t want private companies patrolling the public streets of Britain, we want police officers and PCSOs doing the job.

Cuts and privatisation, chaos and confusion. That is Tory reform.

My opponents are trying to say that as a Labour candidate I am controlled from London. Not true – any more than I would claim that I control the Shadow Home Secretary. But we are saying similar things. Why? Because we have similar values. Those values aren’t exclusive to the Labour Party – I think they resonate with many people across North Wales. If you share these values, make sure you tell your family, friends and neighbours to vote for me in the forthcoming election!

One thought on “How should Labour Commissioners deal with the Government’s privatisation agenda?

  1. Pingback: Privatisation | Rachel Rogers

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