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.
On Facebook, Saqib Ali Rafiq wrote:
Sounds like modern day dystopia. They may as well start hiring private military companies to do their policing on the streets also(!)
I think that would come next, Saqib, if they get away with it, but I really do think they’re straying into unacceptable territory for their core voters. I certainly hope so. This mission to destroy the whole of the British state is making me feel sick.
On Digg, cosmicsurfer wrote:
If killing the NHS (and with it assuring the death sentence of the poor and ill in the UK) wasn’t bad enough in the Tory led war on the citizens if the UK, now we have the attempts to “privatize” the prisons.
Tories proving that they want to be more American than America through their latest moves to butcher the common good
Privatising the prisons is one thing – and it’s been going on for a while – but privatising the police is a new low. Seriously, I have no love for the police anywhere, but I can’t imagine how anyone with a functioning brain would want their national, government-run police force to be replaced by an unaccountable corporation.
Natalia Rivera Scott wrote:
This is really scary…that’s all I can say…besides all what’s happened, I can’t believe this type of companies still get deals after having Guantanamo in their “work experience” record, when they should be jobless.
Richard Osbourne wrote:
Oh crap. I want these people to stop doing what the hell they like and start doing what is right. It’s time. I insist on it.
Dejanka Bryant wrote:
Makes you wonder why Lockhead Martin, a notorious US arms manufacturer, was awarded a contract of £150m to run our census.
Beebs Tweet wrote:
The ramifications will lead to brutal sinister police state, eventually…IMHO
Thanks, Natalia, Richard, Dejanka and Beebs. Good to hear from you all, and thanks to everyone who’s liked and shared this. The problem, horribly, is that the international security sector just gets bigger all the time, and as a a result it attracts more investment, and on and on we go. For the security sector, of course, this began with 9/11, and there are now far too many companies close to governments lobbying for more and more work. In general, however, the problem with this privatizing mania is that the option of investing in the state simply doesn’t seem to exist, even though, as a taxpayer, I was under the impression – until Cameron’s Tories got in – that taxes were supposed to support state-run enterprises, not lead to the funding of their destruction.
Beebs Tweet wrote:
Good point Andy. The other area of contention here, is the lack of police concerns with crime, and more so on surveillance. For instance, arresting demonstrators, confiscating pamplets at demos, and so forth. There seems to be an erosion of policing crimes, more focus on surveillance? IMHO. This is worrying. How much is being spent on crime prevention in contrast to surveillance, including the internet?
It’s a good question, Beebs, and very much related to the extent to which a self-justifying privatized security sector has established itself since 9/11 – in the US, in the UK and elsewhere. I’d like to spend some more time looking at the companies involved on the Uk side of things, if I can. If anyone has time to do that, please let me know!
I am pleased you noticed this and have written about it. This is really serious stuff for the UK; this could put the whole country in real danger. This company and no doubt others like it will try to gain ever more power in the UK. These companies change names and form new companies; and so things are not just simple. They are immensely unscrupulous and will turn towards violence without hesitation. The whole country could be changed into a corporate plutocracy within five or six years. Allowing these companies any more power in this country is pure madness.
Absolutely, Peace Activist. Thanks. Good to hear from you, as ever.
Malcolm Bush wrote:
I know that Andy Worthington has done marvelous work carefully documenting all of the prisoner abuse and so-forth. I tend to look around very generically and so my knowledge is spread out and very poor. However I have looked at many reports from very good sources regarding companies like these; believe me, some of the stuff is terrifying. I sometimes think that the public see a story on the news or in a newspaper and dwell upon the story; form an opinion without any caveats to their lack of knowledge and don’t try to look beyond the headline, ask the questions that beg to be asked. Just one example is the rendition flights to Libya; everyone read the story but who owned or leased the aircraft? There are many ways in which all these things link together like a jigsaw puzzle. Certainly a vast private empire has built up around the “war on terror”, it has become so big and profitable that the only way is forward towards taking over everything.
Sylvia Martin wrote:
I hope the privatization of policing doesn’t come to pass there, Andy. One major problem is lack of accountability. U.S. military are accountable to Congress; private corps., not so. Blackwater, KBR, etc. were not liable legally to any nation for their crimes in Iraq. A bad business, indeed.
Thanks, Malcolm and Sylvia. Very good to hear from you both. Sadly, you’re right about people not looking at the bigger picture, Malcolm, and making connections. And yes, Sylvia, that’s it in a nutshell – accountability. While people foolishly allow themselves to be persuaded that our leaders are benevolent, and have our best interests at heart, those same leaders are privatizing everything that hasn’t yet been privatized, to enrich a small number of people at the expense of the rest of us, and to prevent us fro having any effective involvement in the entire infrastructure of our lives.
George Kenneth Berger wrote:
I’m digging and sharing this, Andy. I have been celebrating the formal end of my treatment. I’m alright, I just need plenty of Rest and Recreation.
Dejanka Bryant wrote:
Security companies mushroomed in this country since 9/11, with blessings from Blair’s government. I know it through my 1 year accountancy work. These private companies have been operating for years in the UK. It’s only now that this present government is going to legalise it, giving them a green light to overtake our Police. Millions of pounds of our tax money will go to these private companies. If they can profit from our taxes we will be safe; if not, our society is going to be the most ruthless one, with our sharp teeth ready to break the neck of our neighbour for whatever reason.
Malcolm Bush wrote:
These security companies will slowly take over the NHS by stealth; they’ll want all that has a potential for high profit. They’ll privatize our £ like they have done $.
Dejanka Bryant wrote:
I am re-posting this article. Just found this report, published yesterday.
“Security firm G4S provides services to Israeli prisons, police and army”
Thanks, George, Dejanka and Malcolm.
First of all, George, I’m delighted to hear that you’re celebrating the end of your treatment. That’s great news, and as well all know, great news is hard to come by in general.
Dejanka and Malcolm, thanks for the additional contributions to the ongoing discussions. More confirmation that people need to wake up and scrutinise those who claim to have our best interests at heart. “Shareholders only” might as well be their motto …
Malcolm Bush wrote:
Thank you for the reply, I don’t have a complete list of all the companies competing for this work. Some have a really bad history and there are law firms that wish to start prosecutions against some of them. I noticed the comment regarding G4S. Whilst there have been stories of racism and wrong doing within the UK, reported in the Guardian and so-forth for years, the Home Office seem to not know anything till recently. Maybe they don’t read newspapers? All these companies have a very strong relationship with Israel, they’ll no doubt be funded by the PFI as part of the foreign aid to Israel.
Thanks again, Malcolm. What I took from your comments was an appreciation of how corrupt government officials only very selectively pay attention to the media.
Malcolm Bush wrote:
I saw your article in open Democracy and typed out a comment. I don’t know if you saw it; I went a bit heavy with ‘doom and gloom’ I think the issue is far more serious than the general public believe.
Thanks, Malcolm. I believe it is indeed very serous, and I’m sure some people will have worked out that something is not right when they saw police officers, marching in London, being interviewed during the strike last week, and complaining about it. If the police are sidelined by the government, that seems to me to be potentially suicidal politically (and also unwise in the case of possible civil unrest), but also a clear example of the extent of the Tories’ obsession with privatisation – for which read unaccountability. In every service, the push, the urge, the rush to privatise is intended to marginalise the workers, to de-unionise the workers, to make them vulnerable, disposable, poor. In every field, from the police to teachers (marginalised in academies, where unions are not allowed), state-employed workers are being threatened with being subjected to differential pay scales, which is another plan designed to cement the casualisation of previously permanent – and societally important – jobs, and to drive down wages.
And the worst thing is that this unprecedented revolution – aimed at the total elimination of anything run by the state – is largely being ignored, as far too many people no longer know what’s important, or feel impotent, or have been brainwashed by the steady erosion of the public sector since Thatcher. Given how much has already been eroded, and how little dissent there is in general when it comes to the effects of privatisation, this is truly alarming.
Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
Email Andy Worthington
Please support Andy Worthington, independent journalist: