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From defunding to privatisation: Considerations for abolitionists

Illustration by Nadia Akingbule @nadiaakingbule

“This raises the question about whether it is possible to assemble the type of political coalition necessary to win meaningful and necessary reforms around abolishing or defunding the police, or whether, given the looming austerity and balance of forces, political elites may be able to use this slogan as cover to make their police departments even less responsive to any type of democratic accountability through privatization, without any concomitant increase in funds for social services.”

David B. Feldman, 'On Creative Destruction, Myths, and Revolution' (Monthly Review Vol.72 No.9)

As anti-police protests re-emerge all over England and Wales, demands to 'defund' or 'divest' the police have also resurfaced. In reality, the police are already being defunded, just not in the way activists were expecting. For decades, police chiefs have complained about the lack of funding and statistically they're right. Fiscal austerity measures imposed by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition (2010-2015) and subsequent single-party Conservative governments have meant that year after year, police budgets have been slashed. For many on the left, this should come as good news. Yet a financially weakened police force is susceptible to that one thing Conservative governments do best: privatisation. This also poses problems for the public, for while the violence of the English police towards citizens is becomingly increasingly well-documented, there is much less recorded about the significantly less accountable private companies that fill this policing void.

Fiscal austerity 'defunding' certainly does not have the same end-goals as the 'defund the police' movements. The former is an attempt by neo-liberal politics to drain public services, in this case the police force, of funding in order to transfer it into the hands of private ownership. Meanwhile, the latter seeks to decrease and divest funding of the police into social services that supposedly tackle the root cause of crime and anti-social behaviour. Most 'defunding' movements would baulk at the idea of substituting a public police force for a privately-owned one. However, as is already evident in the United States, neo-liberal governments can and will use calls to defund the police to further their fiscal agenda of privatisation. This means that 'defund the police' as a position is open to co-option by political bodies pushing for police privatisation.

In essence, what immediately stands out from this analysis is that defunding the police is not the answer. As this report will show, this strategy can and in some instances already has been co-opted by capitalist forces. Therefore, the only solution is abolition.

The defunding of the police

It can be difficult to make a clear statistical analysis of police budget funding as the government is constantly restructuring its financial distribution to police services. Not only that, but the very organisational structure of the police is often reshaped, meaning funds are divested, cut, reapplied, and created anew every few years.

This obfuscation of funding can allow governments to hide funding divestment from public scrutiny. However, there are numbers out there that this report has attempted to gather and break down.

Take, for example, this government's recent proposal to increase the policing budget by £1.121 billion from 2019/2020 levels, an average increase of 8% across the board.[1] This may, on first glimpse, look like an increase of funding, but it is only thus in comparison to 2019/2020 levels. If you consider that overall police funding fell by 19% on average last decade, this 8% year-on-year increase still leaves an 11.5% overall reduction in budget from pre-2010 levels (not accounting for other economic variables).[2] Factor in that British police forces have approximately spent an extra £100 million during the pandemic so far and that budget 'increase' begins to look even smaller.[3]

Meanwhile, the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests spending fell by 14% in real terms between 2010-11 and 2014-15, while Full Fact highlights that overall funding fell by 19% between 2010/11 to 2018/19, taking inflation into account.[4][5] Whichever way you cut the numbers, police funding dramatically fell last decade and this current government's spending pledges do little to plug this hole.

However, not all police funding comes through central government, a lot is raised through precepts set through local council tax. Most recent statistics indicate this method accounts for 34% of police funding.[6] For 2020/2021, the government allowed local councils to increase council tax precepts for Band D properties by an additional £10. The government suggests, “If all PCCs [police and crime commissioners] in England and Wales choose to take advantage of the precept flexibility, then this will raise up to an additional £248 million based on current forecasts”.[7] Most local councils have opted to increase precept levels by £10.[8]

In other words, this Conservative government is further attempting to shift responsibility for police funding on to local government. This naturally creates disparity in local policing depending on your postcode and the average property prices in your catchment area. That 19% average decrease in police funding posited by Full Fact is a national average, and as they suggest, can vary substantially from area to area. Last decades budget reductions in policing “range[d] from an 11% fall in Surrey police force to a 25% fall in Northumbria. This is mainly because some forces, like Northumbria, rely more heavily on government grants and don’t raise as much locally.”[9] While this might suggest there will be greater privatisation of policing in some constabularies compared to others, this report will later show that in fact no constabulary remains exempt from privatisation.

What about the much-lauded increase in 20,000 police personnel promised by the current Tory government? Another deception: between 2011 and 2018, a period in which the Conservatives were always in power in some shape or form, 21,732 police left the force. This means that even if the government reached its unlikely target of 20,000 new personnel, there will be a reduction of 1,732 under their watch. That might not seem like a huge difference, but considering by 2018 police numbers were at their lowest since 1981, overall the police are still chronically understaffed.[10]

The privatisation of the police

In July 2013, during the height of austerity, the National Audit Office (NAO), in conjunction with Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), produced a 'practical guide' entitled, Private sector partnering in the police service.[11] The report begins by stating: “in common with other public bodies, the police are now also looking to work in partnership with private sector organisations. […] Police forces in England and Wales have contracted with the private sector for several decades. However, this activity has increased over the last two years as the service responds to the budget reductions required by the 2010 spending review.”[12] Supposedly, Bromely Council in London was the first to contract a private firm to provide support where police couldn't manage, namely on housing estates.[13] The firm in question is Sentinel Security, who now provide services to South Gloucestershire Council.

What are the nature of these services? While there is little seemingly documented about what Sentinel Services provides for the police, the NAO's practical guide notes that private-public partnering in the police falls under three categories: Major Partnering, Custody Partnering, and Consultancy Reports.[14] There are five police constabularies currently engaged in 'Major Partnering': Avon & Somerset, Lincolnshire, Cleveland, Chesire, and Northamptonshire. What exactly these private partners provide varies from force to force.

For Avon & Somerset's 554 privately seconded staff it's: “enquiry offices; district HR; estates; financial services; site administration; facilities; corporate human resources; information services; purchasing and supply; and reprographics.”[15] Whereas for others, like Lincolnshire, the partners roles are much more public-facing: “assets and facilities management (including fleet management); central ticket office and road collisions unit; crime management bureau; criminal justice unit; custody (excluding custody sergeant role); finance and procurement; firearms licensing; force control room (excluding inspector role); HR services (excluding occupational health); HR learning and development; ICT; resource management unit and support services.” Some suggest that these partnerships rarely involve front-line police, this is patently untrue. Many of the above roles in Lincolnshire Constabulary can be deemed front-line and many of the custody roles taken up by private staff in other forces, like the outsourced front office staff and custody assistants who work for the Metropolitan Police, are clearly front-line services.

It's not always evident to the public which companies are contracted by the PCCs to take over the police. This in itself is problematic as PCCs are elected, publicly accountable figures who should demonstrate transparency. The NAO report pointedly returns to the idea that policing in the UK should be done by consent and that PCCs, “from their elected position [...] will be mindful of public opinion and may have different views on private sector involvement in policing”.[16] Yet at no point does it seem the public has been consulted in private-public police partnering in the last few decades and indeed there is no step within in the process of tendering or procuring private contracts that allows for public scrutiny

Nevertheless, there have been some high-profile cases in the media of the kind of contracts that have been signed. Avon & Somerset had a contract with IBM which ran into problems after three years.[17] Lincolnshire Constabulary's £229 million contract with G4S in 2012 gained much coverage at the time; G4S is reported to have absorbed half of the Lincolnshire police force.[18] Cleveland Constabulary's major partnership is with Steria, who provide “call handling, front desk staffing, and aspects of the criminal justice system on top of computer services, finance and training”.[19] While other high-profile partnering proposals have failed, Surrey and West Midlands police had major contracts out to tender valued at £1.2 billion but no company took the bait. However, the NAO's report did highlight that as of 2011, West Midlands police was receiving private consultancy support “focused on all operational policing area and local policing units”, yet who was providing this support is not noted.[20]

G4S will be familiar to many, their involvement in Custody Partnering is well-known. The first G4S prison in the UK opened in 1992 and they currently run four of Her Majesty's Prisons (HMPs), all of which would have been under government control at some point, as well as many Custody Detention Suites. G4S also run a project affectionately named 'Street to Suite': mobile custody suites to deal with over-crowding or on-the-spot criminalisation, now used by seven councils. Meanwhile, Serco—the much-derided recipients of that multi-billion pound contract for the UK's track and trace system—run six HMPs as well as prison escort services. Both G4S and Serco have been found guilty of multiple accounts of fraud in the past and forced to pay out tens of millions of pounds in fines.[21]

Will this privatisation cease? As long as a neo-liberal government is in power, this is unlikely. Under neoliberalism, deliberate funding divestment will continue for the future, although this in and of itself does not guarantee privatisation. What neo-liberal policy advocates is not just the targeted elimination of public funding, but partnering it with concurrent legislation that allows for the private tendering of contracts to complete the cycle of privatisation. In this vain, as of 24 March 2021, there are 105 government contracts that pertain to 'Police Services' out to tender.[22]

A case for abolition

The steady defunding of English and Welsh police forces and encroaching privatisation is not a call for more public investment. It is not to decry the loss of local policing, nor a demand for more scrutiny of private procurement. Undoubtedly, the British police are morally beyond saving. At least 1,780 people have been killed by England and Wales police forces since 1990.[23] Many of those deaths took place in police custody. Considering the widespread privatisation of custodial services, it follows that private companies are also complicit in these deaths. One notable example of this is the death of Jimmy Mubenga in 2010 at the hands of three G4S security guards. The Observer recently revealed that at least 594 allegations of sexual misconduct were levelled at the police between 2012-2018, of which 119 were upheld.[24] The Met Police have also been accused of institutional racism on multiple occasions, most notably by Sir William Macpherson in his 1999 inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Once again, considering the decades-long involvement of private firms within the police, one must assume these firms are least complicit, if not guilty, of involvement in these failures.

Meanwhile, the most involved private partners of the police, the aforementioned G4S and Serco, continually come under the spotlight for criminality. G4S have revealed themselves to be entirely negligent in their custodial duties. In 2017, just a few years after the prosecution of the G4S guards responsible for Mubenga's death, Panorama revealed widespread abuse taking place at G4S's Brook House and Tinsley House detention centres. G4S were forced to surrender the contracts in 2020, although they maintain this was a business decision to focus on their portfolio of prisons. Serco has now taken over the contracts for these detentions centres. This is in spite of the corroborated allegations of mistreatment and abuse of residents in 2015 at Serco-owned Yarl's Wood detention centre.

Campaign groups such Abolitionist Futures clearly lay out a beneficial case for the abolition of the police in England and Wales, including how calls for abolition differ from defunding.[25] The concept does not demand the immediate dissolution of the police by tomorrow morning. Yet the movement for abolition, which dates back at least fifty years, looks to supplant the police with newly formed social services—ones not entangled in the current carceral system—that meet the needs of the people: better mental health provisions, decriminalisation of drugs and make available support for people who experience challenges in relation to their drug use, permanent housing for the homeless, education and gainful employment over punitive punishments. The current 'defunding', austerity model by the Conservative government seeks only to shift the responsibility for policing and prison services into private hands, rather than develop these novel public services.


[1] Home Office News Teams, 'Factsheet: police funding settlement 2020-2021', Home Office in the media, 22 January 2020.

[2] Full Fact, 'Police funding in England and Wales, 28 September 2018.

[3] Vikram Dodd, 'Police in England and Wales facing new era of austerity', The Guardian, 1 July 2020.

[4] Richard Disney and Polly Simpson, 'Police workforce and funding in England and Wales', The Institute for Fiscal Studies, 2017.

[5] Full Fact, 'Police funding in England and Wales'

[7] Home Office News Teams, 'Factsheet: police funding settlement 2020-2021'

[9] Full Fact, 'Police funding in England and Wales'

[10] Rachel Shraer, 'Have police numbers dropped', BBC, 26 July 2019.

[11] Thomas P. Winsor and Amyas CE Morse, 'Private sector partnering in the police service', National Audit Office, July 2013.

[12] ibid

[13] Nicholas Elliot, 'The Growth of Privatised Police', The Foundation for Economic Education, 1 February 1991.

[14] Thomas P. Winsor and Amyas CE Morse, 'Private sector partnering in the police service'

[15] ibid

[16] ibid

[17] Alan Travis and Zoe Williams, 'Revealed: government plans for police privatisation', The Guardian, 2 March 2012

[18] ibid

[19] ibid

[20] Thomas P. Winsor and Amyas CE Morse, 'Private sector partnering in the police service'

[21] Sam Bright, 'Serco and G4S may be excluded from government contracts under new proposals', The Byline Times, 15 December 2020.

[24] Mark Townsend and Chaminda Jayanetti, 'Revealed: the grim list of sex abuse claims against Metropolitan police', The Guardian, 20 March 2021.

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