The privatisation of coercive power

More and more often, public law enforcement and justice services, from our prisons to handing out fines for littering, are being outsourced to private, profit-making companies. Former Green Party leader Natalie Bennett examines how this is negatively affecting our communities.

Security camera
Security camera
Natalie Bennett

When I talk about why I, and the Green Party, believe that the coercive power of the state should never be privatised, I’m often focusing on the huge, life or death issues.

We are focused on the private prisons managed for private profit, not for the decent care of the often vulnerable souls in them, and their potential future victims if rehabilitation is not delivered.

We are focused on the treatment of vulnerable asylum-seekers, often previously the victims of torture, bundled onto planes by force, sometimes deadly force, having been subjected to further abuse in inadequate facilities.

But it is a rule that should also be applied to the smaller, local exercises of justice also. And the damage perhaps becomes clearer, where anyone is at risk of the uncertain ‘justice’ of the profit motive.

It came as no surprise when the Guardian produced an expose on the Kingdom Services Group, about which I’d previously heard disturbing reports from around the country. It is employed by 14 councils to enforce anti-littering, dog-lead laws and public space protection orders (some other councils, including Liverpool, Plymouth and Flintshire, have dropped it).

The reports of abuses and concerns about the approach are voluminous, from straight falsification – including a woman accused of dropping a cigarette butt who was lucky enough to be able to get CCTV footage to prove she hadn’t – to accusations of the targeting of the weak and vulnerable as most likely to cough up a fine without protest, and reports of employees skulking in the hope of catching people out when they are supposed to be fulfilling an educative, visible function.

If such enforcement is carried out by local council officers, or police, then there is a clear line of accountability for the officers’ actions. There is democratic oversight.

That’s not the case with privatised arrangements. All too often even the contractual arrangements are veiled behind ‘commercial confidentiality’ (as we’ve found to our cost in Sheffield with Amey’s management of our streets).

And the motives of the people on the street and those managing them are wrong. That’s not a criticism of them as individuals – indeed, often with privatisation we see the same people moving from decently paid, secure public sector jobs to insecure, low-paid private jobs doing essentially the same role – but a systemic failure.

Staff will be pushed, even forced, to act with the pound signs front and foremost in their decision-making

The job of these companies is to make money, not to deliver for the public good, and so their staff will be pushed, even forced, to act with the pound signs front and foremost in their decision-making.

So, if providing a visible presence that promotes awareness of the law and the reasons for not littering reduces income, that’s not going to be a priority. If someone who’s perhaps a bit frail and forgetful has just left behind a coffee cup, it is unlikely to be in the public interest to slap them with a fine they can’t afford. And street drinkers may need help, but a fine is not going to increase the chances of that happening.

Litter is a big problem in the UK, while any local councillor will tell you that dog fouling and dogs off-lead where they shouldn’t be are too.

But bringing in companies to profit from people responsible for these things is no way to tackle them.

We need to tackle the source of many of these problems – multinational companies profiting from damaging materials, lack of education, awareness and empowerment – rather than see a blight on our communities as a further source of profit.

We need public officials acting for the public good – using their judgement, under the policy and strategic guidance of elected local people to produce the best possible outcome for communities.