Yesterday, the Guardian reported the extraordinary story that KBR (Kellogg, Brown & Root), the Texas-based former subsidiary of the Halliburton corporation (of which former US Vice President Dick Cheney was the CEO), is part of a consortium that has made it through to the final shortlist for a £1.5bn contract to "run key policing services in the West Midlands and Surrey."
KBR, which was sold by Halliburton in 2007, was involved in building the Bush administration’s reviled "war on terror" prison at Guantánamo Bay, and "was still part of Halliburton when it won a large share of Pentagon contracts to build and manage US military bases in Iraq after the 2003 invasion."
When the "police privatisation" plan was first touted in two months ago, the Guardian explained that "[p]rivate companies could take responsibility for investigating crimes, patrolling neighbourhoods and even detaining suspects" under the radical privatisation plan being put forward by West Midlands and Surrey, "two of the largest police forces in the country," who had "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 Guardian added that the contract was "the largest on police privatisation so far," dwarfing a recently agreed £200m contract between Lincolnshire police and G4S, under which, as the Guardian explained, in a matter-of-fact manner that failed to disguise the chilling reality of what was going on, "half the force’s civilian staff are to join the private security company, which will also build and run a police station for the first time."
I fail to see how this can be anything but a PR disaster for the Tories, primarily because it demonstrates that they are not just driven by an urge to privatise everything (as their assault on Britain’s universities and the NHS have demonstrated), but are absolutely obsessive about their mission, and are unflinchingly proud to be destroying the state’s control of almost every aspect of British life, even going so far as to mess with the police, an area of core right-wing support. To me — and, I’m sure, to many, many other people — the government’s plans for the police also lay bare the extent of the damage that ministerial inflexibility brings, including — in particular, I think — the results of an inability to recognise when change is economically counter-productive, and a loss of accountability that ought to trouble anyone who wants those who purport to serve the public to be answerable to the public and not just to their shareholders.
The Guardian explained that it had "learned that 15 groups of companies and individual firms have made it on to the most recent shortlist," after more than 200 "initially expressed an interest at a 'bidders’ conference’ held in March," and that the list "includes several private security companies that are already involved in running private prisons, escorting and deporting prisoners or providing other criminal justice services" – like G4S, the disturbingly huge global security services company that also has a dubious reputation (see the scandal over its dealings with deportations from the UK, for example).
This is new territory for KBR, however, although last month Chris Sims, the West Midlands chief constable, said that his force was "a good testing ground for fundamental change as he battles to find £126m of budget savings," and pointed out that there was already significant private investment in the armed forces, and that KBR was one example, "as the Texas company employs the large contingent of civilian staff managing the British Camp Bastion in Afghanistan."
That is, of course, disturbing in its own right, as only the mention of the word "Blackwater" ought to alert intelligent people to the problems with outsourcing — and making unaccountable — military activities, and there is, of course, no reason to think that outsourcing and the removal of accountability would be any wiser when applied to the police.
The Guardian also noted that a KBR spokesman had admitted to the Times that the company was interested in the West Midlands/Surrey contract, but had claimed, "KBR is not involved in policing, our objective in the privatisation of the police force is to get more police doing actual police work while KBR brings operational efficiencies to the back office with the objective of achieving an overall lower cost of service while improving service levels. We are an operational support company whose capabilities are transferable to critical, uniformed, command-led environments such as the police."
On its website, the company also weighed in, attempting to defend its position, but ended up muddying the waters still further. "KBR already provides support services to the police in the UK," the company announced, adding, "We are, for example, supporting the police during the Olympic Games" — an aspect of their involvement in the British state that I had not previously noted. KBR added, "Like many other companies facing the public sector, KBR is interested in helping West Midlands and Surrey Police improve their efficiency, but we have no interest in 'privatising’ the roles of front-line police officers."
However, in March, the Guardian reported that these "back office" support claims drastically underplayed the role that KBR and other private companies anticipated playing, stating:
The breathtaking list of policing activities up for grabs includes investigating crimes, detaining suspects, developing cases, responding to and investigating incidents, supporting victims and witnesses, managing high-risk individuals, patrolling neighbourhoods, managing intelligence, managing engagement with the public, as well as more traditional back-office functions, such as managing forensics, providing legal services, managing the vehicle fleet, finance and human resources.
Despite a statement by the West Midlands and Surrey forces, in which they insisted that they were "still in the early stages of the procurement process," the Guardian noted that the disclosure about KBR "raised fears among critics that the contract is close to privatising core elements of policing."
This is undoubtedly true, of course, and for a clear example of how this obsessed government is out of control — using, as ever, a false mantra of austerity to justify what is at heart an ideological mission to destroy public ownership of everything – Julie Nesbit of the Police Federation — that’s the Police Federation, not a traditional bastion of left-wing dissent — said, "This is the latest move that seems to be designed to make the police more and more remote from the public we serve."
She added, crucially:
We believe simply that if you call a cop, you should get a cop, not a security guard, not a uniformed civilian nor an employee of a major international conglomerate. We believe it’s what the public expect and believe that there should be a public debate before parts of the police service are sold off to the highest bidder.
Derek Barnett, the president of the Police Superintendents’ Association, also criticised the plans, calling for "greater public consultation over moves towards privatisation," as the Guardian described it. "The legitimacy of policing stems from the fact that it takes place with the consent of the public," he said. "It is only right, therefore, that the public should have a say in who they want to deliver operational policing services."
The Guardian also spoke to Peter Allenson. a national officer for local government with Unite, who lamented that there was "a lack of awareness among the public" regarding the proposals. "The police are fundamental to the society we live in," he said. "This is an issue of major importance, yet the government are pushing through privatisation at breakneck speed without proper public consultation."
I’m not sure how "fundamental" I think the police are, as they’re rarely around when needed (honestly!), and, in my neighbourhood, they spend far too much time harassing young black men in a random manner, and eating fast food, but they are at least part of a structure that involves the public, the government, and some sort of accountability — whereas this accountability, of course, conveniently disappears the moment that police services are in private hands, whether they are the hands of G4S employees, bloodied from disposing of unwanted asylum seekers, or those of KBR employees, with their experience of dealing with arbitrarily detained Muslim prisoners at Guantánamo, or their counterparts in Iraq.
Personally, I’d rather have police whose competence — or not — is at least the responsibility of a Chief Constable who can, to some extent, be called to account for his officers’ actions, and not an unassailable CEO, who, in KBR’s case, would also be leeching British taxpayers’ money out of the country to KBR’s HQ in Texas.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, "The Complete Guantánamo Files," a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, "Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo" (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new "Close Guantánamo campaign," and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.