Friday, 13 July 2012

Rent a cop: the lessons from MetPro, G4S - and the Helen Michael story

Here is a press release from our Labour GLA member Andrew Dismore:

Conservative Council’s henchmen like ‘Metpro’ could replace bobbies if Boris gets his way, warns Dismore

Labour London Assembly Member Andrew Dismore today warned that if Boris Johnson’s vision for Policing in London is fulfilled, it could well result in companies like the now defunct “Met Pro Emergency Response” security firm being handed contracts to patrol the streets of Barnet and Camden.

Labour London Assembly Member Andrew Dismore said:

“Following the Conservative London Mayor’s announcement of major police cuts, Barnet is losing even more police officers. Official figures provided to me by the Mayor reveal that in the past two years our we have lost in Barnet a quarter of Police Sergeants, 13% of Police Constables and over a third of all PCSOs. Camden has lost 11% of its police officers and 39% of PCSOs.

“Mayor Johnson now plans to “outsource” – that is to privatise – local police incident response and patrolling. In Barnet, the now bankrupt Met Pro patrolled the streets of Totteridge and was employed by Barnet Council to provide security guards, including at the Town Hall during Council Meetings, where their robocops intimidated local people and stopped the public attending meetings.

“The idea that a cowboy company like Met Pro could be replacing police officers and PCSOs on our streets is a terrifying prospect, but only to be expected from this Conservative Mayor.

Just look how they have had to draft in the army to help secure the Olympic site because private company G4S has failed to honour its contractual commitments makes a mockery of the Mayors plan for privatised policing in London.”

Mrs Angry understands that links to her blogposts on the MetPro scandal have been circulated to all the Assembly members, and this issue is due to be debated at City Hall next Thursday. Mrs Angry may well drop in to see what our AMs have to say about the matter. Be warned.

And of course anyone who remembers the simply mindboggling story behind Barnet Council's use of the illegally operating company MetPro will know how real the risk is from any dependence on such companies, and boy are there a lot of companies out there, just waiting to take on the work. The thought that we could be expected to allow these dangerous fools to replace the service that needs to be undertaken by professional police officers is simply intolerable, and must be opposed by anyone with any sense.

One of the most pressing concerns in regard to these private companies is the lack of proper regulation and accountability.

The Home Office set up an agency, the SIA, which is supposed to oversee this industry, one notorious for all sorts of unsavoury practices, from protection rackets to drug dealing - and the use of violence and intimidation.

MetPro were used to bar residents from attending council meetings, in situations with children at risk - despite not having CRB checks, and carried out illicit filming of residents, including me. At the very least, the implications of the potential widescale unmonitored use of cctv and other data processing procedures by such companies is hugely concerning,

In theory, you can check up on any private security company by visiting the SIA website, and using the register of licensed operators. Except if you do try to do this, you will find it is almost impossible to use.

As Mrs Angry discovered last year, when trying to check out the employees used by MetPro, there is no easy way to check a particular company. There is no obligation for companies to be approved contractors, and as for individual employees - unless you know their name, or the number of the license they may not have anyway, you cannot confirm whether or not they are acting legally. The website itself warns you it is inaccessible to browsers such as Firefox, and the search facility is conveniently complex, over specific and uncooperative.

Mrs Angry also learnt last year, in fact, from a source that the SIA is known within the Home Office to be allegedly rather less than effective in its role of regulating the private security industry. The MetPro story would certainly suggest that this might be the case.

In the preparation for the provision of extra security for the Olympics it also became clear there was a chronic shortage of suitable private security employees throughout the UK.

It seems that the recruitment of new employees by G4S has been obstructed by difficulties such as security clearance and inadequate training. The training issue is directly the fault of those responsible within the company, but what about the security aspect? Did the government prioritise this as something to be addressed, or were they too distracted by rather less important matters?

The G4S fiasco, and the MetPro scandal: together they present the most compelling argument you could ask for against the casual use of security companies rather than properly trained professional employees. On a wider scale, it is yet another example of the extreme folly of attempting to outsource the provision of vital public services to the private sector.

And there is another dimension to the G4S story, of course.

Last week this blog exclusively revealed the real reason behind the ludicrous investigation of Helen Michael, the North Finchley cafe owner who led a campaign against a stupid new parking scheme, and was consequently investigated and interviewed for two hours, under caution, by SO15 counter terrorism officers, under the pretext of a poster she had produced.

This poster, featuring the charmless local politician Brian Coleman, had originally been published without the required details of publication, an omission immediately corrected by Helen Michael. Despite her action, and an assurance from local police that that would be the end of the matter, the issue was resurrected by counter terror police, seemingly, it seems now, due to the possibility that when the Olympic Torch passes through this borough, traders in North Finchley might line the route with banners protesting about the local council. This has been construed as an eventuality so dangerous, it must be investigated, as a priority, even as the individual 'CF', living under a control order, has made five visits to the Olympic site, and arrests have been made in connection with potential acts of terrorism.

The question must be asked: why has someone like Helen Michael been targeted for so much attention, when the real issues of concern, from individuals presenting potential risk, and the huge problem of the lack of qualified security employees promised by G4S, clearly required a higher level of attention? Where is the real need?

The security of the Olympic Torch relay is an interesting challenge. The risk of terrorist acts is real, but clearly this risk is from a fairly well defined source.

There is also another threat, and one which raises all sorts of questions around the issue of civil liberties. This is the threat of political embarrassment, from people who may have perfectly good reasons to want to protest, and focus attention on their causes. Like a disastrous parking policy, or the closure of a local library.

Cast your mind to the 2008 Olympics, held in Beijing. When the Torch came here, the relay was beset with protest, much of it from pro-Tibet supporters. It caused enormous embarrassment to China - to the Olympic organisers and their corporate sponsors, and to the British government.

When Mrs Angry was in Cornwall recently, the Olympic Torch relay had just passed through the county - into England. As the bearer carried it over the Tamar Bridge, he happened to be displaying the black and white flag of St Piran, the symbol of Cornwall. This flag was ripped from him by a plain clothes police officer accompanying the relay. The incident caused outrage in Cornwall, and not surprisingly.

Is the heavy handed treatment of potential demonstrators along the route of the Torch really considered to be a terrorist threat - or is it perhaps seen as a political threat? Is the visit to the cafe owner from North Finchley from SO15 proportionate to the risk, or is it a waste of resources at a crucial time of need, in the face of possibly the biggest security challenge we have ever faced in this country, and directed not by those tasked with facing that challenge, with strictly limited resources, but by a government intent on controlling the image this country presents to the rest of the world?


baarnett said...

So many posts, so little time...

Mrs Angry said...

yes, baarnett ... I've got a backlog, and my performance targets are failing, One Barnet style ...

Anonymous said...

St. Andrew's CofE Primary School has been using Evolution (former Metpro) to guard and protect the school for the last year. The school is one of the highest expenditure for supply teachers in the borough. Six of the seven full time teaching staff are leaving at the end of this summer term. The Governors are fully supportive of the school and don't listen to Parent's concerns. This seems to be a microcosm of Barnet and their outsourcing policies! Maybe Boris and Brian will be at the summer fair today taking notes!?

Mrs Angry said...

hello Anon: yes, I have written about this school and its rather extraordinary security arrangements here:

No child of mine would be attending a school which showed such a spectacular lack of judgement.