Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Economics Of Numties In Yellow Jackets


Spot the difference

The appalling case of the two Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) who apparently stood by while a boy drowned, once again raises the question of what these Numties in Yellow Jackets are actually for?

The official account varies, depending on who's talking. Right now it seems to be that they "deal with minor nuisance crimes and free up regular police officers to concentrate on more serious crimes". When the abysmal Blunkett dreamed up the idea in 2002, PCSOs were supposedly to act as the street level eyes and ears of the proper police, who, as we now understand, are largely confined to the nick filling in forms.

But either way, their powers are heavily circumscribed. Indeed, when Tyler was subjected to the first of his many Stop and Searches (see here), he was subsequently berated by his ex-Sweeney brother-in-law for not realising you can just tell them to eff off- they have no power to detain you.

Circumscribed powers. Circumscribed training (evidently excludes life-saving). And circumscribed quality.

We never asked for them, and although Home Office opinion polls supposedly say we think their presence on the streets is "reassuring", that's almost certainly because they're dressed up to look like policemen and we're only now discovering just how useless they actually are.

So why have we really got them?

Yes, that's right- they're much cheaper than real police officers.

The average pay of a police officer up to the rank of sergeant is now around £40,000 pa (eg see here). But to that you have to add other employment costs, especially their extraordinarily generous pension arrangements, where the employer's contribution is currently running at an eye watering 24.5% pa (see here- remembering that the average employer's contribution in the private sector is now only about 6%). Add in another 9% for employer's National Insurance contributions (contracted out), and you get to a total pay cost close to £55,000 pa. On top of which you've got other costs, like proper training.

Contrast that with a PCSO. Their pay scale starts at £16,000, and they do not get a final salary pension. According to police estimates, their average all-in cost is just £28,000 pa- only about half the cost of a real police officer. Plus of course, they don't get flash cars to drive around in, and their training comprises little more than how to put on a yellow jacket.

So how much is being saved? There are currently 13,000 PCSOs, and at an average annual saving of around £27,000 each, that gives a total saving of £350m pa. Quite handy when you're as strapped as the Home Office now is.

But is it a good idea?

The case for the prosecution comprises not just this terrible drowning, but also a growing feeling that PCSOs are simply not up to the job. You never could trust a Special like an old time Copper, and these characters aren't even Specials.

For the defence, we have "mixed economy" policing. Yes that's right, mixed economy as in Butskellitte economics, except this one refers to police forces employing fewer actual police officers, and instead substituting more civilian staff. And it turns out our local force has been following the new approach for a while (see here). It goes like this:

"It has long been recognised that a major part of a police officer’s time is taken up with paperwork and other administration tasks which to some extent undermine their role and responsibilities and affect their operational capacity. In order to address these issues a project team was set in place to review the current working practices in crime investigation of police officers in Surrey, and develop a solution towards professionalising the police officers’ roles to be more aligned to their skills and warranted powers.

A consultant ‘expert’ in business and process analysis was commissioned to design a framework which could be used to ‘proof the concept’ of a ‘mixed economy’ approach to policing."

Translation: police officers are bloody expensive; unfortunately, as well as being submerged in all that paperwork vomited down on us by Whitehall, they've also managed to develop a huge raft of Spanish practices that we top managers just can't break; as a second best, we're going to employ a whole load of extra support staff to do the stuff we'd actually like the officers to do.

So, Mixed Economy Policing. MEP. More civvies. More PCSOs.
A good idea?
Actually, Tyler hasn't a clue, because he knows nothing of organising police work. But he has a horrible feeling that those driving MEP through don't have much more of a clue.
In the private sector, we can depend on the old trial and error learning process, with a wide range of different providers trying out a wide range of different approaches (or "business models" as Northern Rock would put it), until someone hits the right lucky combination.
But in the public sector, it's always one-size-fits-all. A short trial somewhere like our manor, and then full steam ahead nationally. Police forces throughout Britain are being driven into substituting PCSO's for real policemen not just by Home Office exhortation, but also specific grant funding.
At the risk of stating yet more of the bleedin' obvious, the only way of finding out what really works is to encourage diversity and experimentation.
Elected sheriffs and local fiscal control, yes. Top down masterplans and more tragic drownings, no.
PS As we blogged here, between 1996-97 and 2006-07, police funding increased by 40% in real terms. Which means in today's money the police have something like an extra £7bn pa to spend (about £300 per household). But the number of police officers has only increased by 11%. The rest has gone on "mixed economy" policing and... er... well, goodness knows what it's gone on.
PPS The Sunday Times has a useful article on this here. It highlights the role of Britain's bonkers Health and Safety regime in obliging police, and indeed fire services, to instruct their officers not to do anything dangerous. The Health and Safety Exceutive even brought that court case against the Met for failing to instruct its officers not to venture onto high roofs. And when individual officers decide to ignore the rules and do the right thing, they can find themselves in hot water- "in March a 42-year-old firefighter, Tam Brown, saved a woman in the River Tay. He was later informed he could face disciplinary action".

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