At the end of last week it was revealed that West Midlands and Surrey police were offering £1.5bn contracts that would allow private firms to both investigate crime and detain suspects. According to The Guardian:
West Midlands and Surrey have invited bids from G4S and other major security companies on behalf of all forces across England and Wales to take over the delivery of a wide range of services previously carried out by the police.
The contract is the largest on police privatisation so far, with a potential value of £1.5bn over seven years, rising to a possible £3.5bn depending on how many other forces get involved.
It goes without saying that this move is highly controversial and, to be frank, disturbing on a number of levels.
Ever since the election, David Cameron has made it clear that one of his chief goals in office is to reduce the size of the state on the basis that we cannot afford to maintain the level of state funding required to maintain public services (I won’t get into the economic arguments around this here, I’m no economist). In July last year, Cameron launched the Open Public Services White Paper claiming that:
“The old dogma that said Whitehall knows best – it’s gone. There will be more freedom, more choice and more local control. Ours is a vision of open public services.”
The rhetoric has moved on in recent months to an outright attack on defenders of public sector services and a strident defence of big business, arguing:
“In recent months we’ve heard some dangerous rhetoric creep into our national debate that wealth creation is somehow anti-social, that people in business are somehow out for themselves.”
According to The Telegraph:
The Prime Minister also spoke out against the growing “anti-business snobbery” towards large firms that claimed money-makers had “no inherent moral worth like the state does”.
Of course this is nothing more than a straw man argument that has little to do with the real issues at the heart of the debate: transparency and accountability.
With the advent of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, came greater transparency at the heart of the institutions which we fund and, effectively, own. Whilst the Act is far from perfect, it enables citizens to obtain information about state institutions which can be used to effectively hold them to account. Whilst the political establishment have long been wary of introducing such a bill (and indeed even the last government regretted it), it was long overdue. The right of citizens to know how their institutions are run should be absolutely fundamental to any civilised, democratic society. And herein lies the problem.
Just at a time when UK citizens have access to more information about state institutions than ever before, there is a steady assault on this access to information. On the one hand we have the growing attacks on the Freedom of Information Act, on the other we have increasing efforts by central government to further the privatisation agenda. Privatisation would, of course, mean services no longer falling under the scope of the Freedom of Information Act.
This is worrying in itself across the board, let alone in terms of the police force. An effective democracy demands transparency and accountability. Without transparency you do not have an effective democracy. Transparency should be absolutely central to the delivery of all public services but particularly in the police force. Whilst the police serve us they should also be held to account by us. Put the police in the hands of the private sector and they are held to account by their shareholders, not the general public.
Opposition to privatisation isn’t about the state sector being inherently ‘good’ whilst the private sector is inherently ‘bad’. It’s about taking power away from the people and placing it in the hands of shareholders and businessmen. There are precedents for societies that placed public services in the hands of the unelected and unaccountable few. Democracy in those societies suffered as a result. This isn’t about ‘inherent moral worth’, it’s about transparency and accountability. It is about democracy.