Police forces put £1.5bn privatisation plan on hold

The proposal was being discussed at a time when forces face 20 per cent spending cuts

The biggest-ever police privatisation programme ran into difficulties yesterday when two forces at the centre of the £1.5bn scheme delayed the project in the face of stiff opposition.

The private sector had been given carte blanche to come up with ways to "transform" two forces, under a lucrative contract that could have seen elements of crime investigation, detaining suspects and intelligence work handed over to security firms.

But chief constables accepted yesterday that they failed to sell the plan. The bidding process, expected to cost £4.5m, will be delayed until after the Olympic Games and further public consultation. It follows protests from officers and unions, who warned that the move would downgrade the role of the police and give more power to less accountable security companies in the West Midlands and Surrey.

The proposal was being discussed at a time when police forces face spending cuts of 20 per cent, with inevitable jobs losses. The cutbacks sparked fury at the Police Federation's conference this week and the Home Secretary, Theresa May, was heckled by rank-and-file officers.

Announcing the delay to privatisation plans, the Surrey Chief Constable, Lynne Owens said the immediate focus for her force was the Olympics. "My absolute priority must be to protect our frontline policing... and I need to reflect on every opportunity that enables me to do that."

The deferral means that new police commissioners, to be elected in November, will have the main say in whether the Home Office-backed plans go ahead. Commissioners will be given powers including the right to hire and fire chief constables and to direct future spending. One of the front-runners in the West Midlands, Bob Jones, believes the privatisation plan to be "completely flawed and completely unbusinesslike" and wants it scrapped in its present form. "I am very sceptical of the process so far," he said. "I don't see there are any benefits from it."

The delay was welcomed by unions who vowed to maintain the pressure over the project. "These are the first indications that plans to privatise the police service could be unravelling," said Peter Allenson, of the Unite union.

West Midlands police is still promoting the scheme but the Chief Constable Chris Sims insisted: "We are owned by the public and we always will be. Policing will not be privatised and is not up for sale."

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