Police force Home Office climbdown

Plans for `privatisation' to be watered down. Jason Bennetto reports
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The police are to retain almost all their powers following a climbdown by the Home Office, which had proposed to "privatise" large parts of the service in a fundamental law and order review. However, a limited number of traditional police functions will be farmed out to private security companies and local authorities. Others will be carried out by civilian members of the police service.

The Home Office's year-long Review of Police Core and Ancillary Tasks, details of which have been obtained by the Independent, will be published in the next few months. The aim of the report is to identify police functions that could be carried out by local authorities or private companies, thereby freeing uniformed officers.

Among the current roles it will select for privatisation are the transcription of taped police interviews; police involvement in enforcing the law against noise pollution; accompanying heavy loads on dual carriageways and motorways; responsibility for stray dogs (transferring it from the police to local authorities); licensing the use of explosives, gaming and betting; reporting missing persons (urging greater involvement by the local authorities); and summoning defendants and witnesses.

Many of these changes have been watered down and will involve only extremely limited private or local authority involvement. Chief constables have argued that many functions are interlinked and provide important information to fight crime.

Proposals to take away the police's responsibility for lost property have been dropped, as have the wider use of private contractors in road control, case updates and support for victims and witnesses at court. The task of warning witnesses may go to theCrown Prosecution Service.

Home Office ministers will take the final decisions on the police review, which is being carried out by departmental civil servants, but they are almost certain to accept the report.

The police victory is due to a combination of a weakening government, desperate to wrestle the law-and-order initiative from Labour; an embattled Home Secretary; and a skilful lobbying campaign by chief constables. However, a Home Office spokesman said that there was no set agenda and that the review team has responded to the arguments.

The Home Office started work on the review at the beginning of 1994 and early suggestions included using civilians to record or visit sudden deaths and alarm calls, reducing the police involvement in controlling public events, and privatising the custodysuites where people are held after being arrested. All these proposals were dropped. Fred Broughton, chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales (which represents rank and file officers), said: "We have successfully argued the case of what policing is really about and the dangers of diluting the service.

``The job can be done cheaper but you don't get the quality of service or accountability."

John Hoddinott, the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said: "We do not believe the review will be about dramatic changes, but more about streamlining the way the police carry out ancillary tasks."

A new beat, page 17