So are West Midlands Police's partnership/"privatisation" plans now about saving money?
West Midlands Police is arguing that the need to make savings is one of the reasons it is pursuing a "Business Partnership Programme" to bring in private sector partners (see this blog by PC Richard Stanley for another perspective on the debate).
The force states on its website: "The force is facing a funding gap of more than £126m over the current spending review (CSR) period and recognises there will considerable challenges ahead. As a result the force is exploring every possible option in order to deliver the most cost efficient and effective service it can."
The issue also came up in a live chat the force has been holding today to explain the process, described by critics as "privatisation", to the public.
As one participant pointed out (not me I assure you!), the explanation seems to contradict the comments made by the Chief Constable to MPs at the Home Affairs Select Committee in March.
Here is a section of the transcript. The Chair is MP Keith Vaz and Mr Winnick, who asks a question at the end, is Black Country MP David Winnick (Lab Walsall North).
Q4 Chair: But some may say, Mr Sims, that £5 million when obviously resources are scarce is a lot of money to spend on what is a very large fishing expedition. At the end of this whole process you may decide we are not going to go and sign any contracts because at the end of the day it is obviously not your decision.
Chief Constable Sims: I would put it slightly stronger than that. It is more than a fishing expedition. We have done, as I said, a year of research, if you like, into how similar pieces of work operate in other force areas, how private sector has involved itself in other parts of the public sector. So from my perspective I would say it is a stronger presumption than simply now testing the market. We have sort of tested the market-
Q5 Chair: How much do you anticipate you will save? If you are spending £5 million on preparation and a lot of police time, obviously very senior officers, how much do you think you will save?
Chief Constable Sims: This is probably the most important point in the discussion. This is not an exercise in simply saving money. By the time this contract, if you like-
Q6 Chair: So it could be more expensive?
Chief Constable Sims: By the time this contract comes into existence West Midlands Police will have saved the £125 million it needs to save in the CSR. What we are, in effect, doing is inviting the private sector companies that are interested in partnering us to bid against, if you like, some outcomes for policing. This is all about improving the service that we offer. It is not about making short-term savings.
Q7 Chair: I understand. So what you have told this Committee, this is not about savings, this is much more fundamental than saving money, so at the end of the day you may save absolutely nothing?
Chief Constable Sims: At the end of the day we may transform the service that the public of the West Midlands and Surrey get.
Q8 Chair: I understand that. At the end of the day, since this is in part driven by finance, the whole process anyway, you are not necessarily going to save any money?
Chief Constable Sims: It is not primarily aimed at simply making savings.
Q9 Mr Winnick: Are you saying, Chief Constable Sims, that if the proposed reduction from Central Government over the next few years, somewhere in the region of 26%, was not going to happen you would still nevertheless go ahead?
Chief Constable Sims: Yes.