A story in today's Scotsman newspaper about the privatisation of police custody cells has attracted a lot of interest. In essence the private security firm, Group 4, are making a pitch to two unnamed police boards to privatise police functions.
As I have said in several TV and radio interviews, this has to be one of the craziest ideas dreamt up in the desperate attempt by some Chief Constables to save cash. Why?
Firstly, the offer is to help police boards with their 'aging estate'. This is code for a Private Finance Initiative type deal that we have plenty of experience of in Scotland. It involves paying private contractors several times over for an asset that could be purchased at a fraction of the price using conventional borrowing. Group 4 are experts at lining their pockets from this sort of deal, including an annual profit of £417m on their private prisons.
Secondly, Group4 have such a poor reputation in England that it is no surprise that they are making a pitch in Scotland. This is the company that ran the Campsfield Detention Centre, the scene of suicides and violence before the inmates burnt it down. Then there is Yarlswood, that suffered a major fire costing £millions after Group4 ignored Fire Brigade advice on installing a proper sprinkler system. Only last week the Guardian ran a story on Group4's management of deportation flights staffed by untrained and unaccredited staff. A senior staff source described this as 'playing Russian roulette with detainees lives'. I could go on but you get the picture.
The question to be posed is who would want their son or daughter in the hands of this company. Police custody is a serious business and it should be staffed by properly trained custody staff. It's no place to cut corners for private profit.
One of the police forces in England that tried this is Staffordshire. As a result of an FoI request from the UNISON police branch we now know that the service costs three times more than the original cost of the in-house provision. Staffordshire Police resisted the FoI request and the branch had to appeal. Hardly surprising that they wanted to keep these numbers quiet!