Leading article: How not to cut corners in the police

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The Independent Online

If there is one institution which ought to be transparently accountable to the public it serves, it should be the police. Yet, as we report today, there are thousands of "private" officers, hired from security companies who do not come under the official watchdog, the Independent Police Complaints Commission. Some chief constables ensure that "private" staff are covered by IPCC jurisdiction. Many do not.

The loophole has come to light, as most loopholes do, because of a pattern that started to emerge when things went wrong. Several investigations into injuries in custody, for instance, turned up the involvement of "private" officers over whom the IPCC has no authority.

If the use of what are essentially agency workers by the police were a temporary phenomenon, or one clearly in decline, then the situation would be serious enough. But the numbers are expected to rise because of the spending cuts faced by police forces. One way chief constables try to cut costs, while keeping sufficient numbers on the front line, is to outsource specific tasks or take on agency staff to help with particularly demanding investigations.

A similar trend can be seen in the NHS, where agency doctors have increasingly been used to cover nights and weekends, and "nurse assistants" and agency workers routinely supplement permanent staff on hospital wards. Something similar affects teaching, where the number of teaching assistants and supply teachers continues to rise. In all these services, the use of temporary or less qualified staff, means that fewer better-paid professionals are employed.

While such practices may save money in the short term, it is ever more apparent that there are serious downsides, which include falls in accountability and professional standards. What is more, lower efficiency and ballooning agency fees can mean that savings become illusory. As chief constables seek to cut costs without jeopardising public safety, they must be required at the very least to bring all those they employ, even indirectly, under the jurisdiction of the IPCC. Leaving the accountability loopholes in place is a betrayal of the public, as well as a false economy.