The thinner blue line

Dave Woodhall comments on the increasing use of private security in public situations.

I see that door staff in pubs around Selly Oak are to be given breathalyser equipment by police, which they’ll use to determine whether or not they’ll admit customers who might have had a few too many. It might sound a welcome idea to help crack down on drunken behaviour but to me not only does it appear pointless but it’s also another step towards a disturbing development.

It’s pointless because door staff already have the powers to stop admittance for whatever reason they like. They work on private premises and if they won’t want you in, that’s it. They don’t need any equipment from whatever source.

The other, and more disturbing, point is that this is yet another blurring of the line between policing and the ever-growing security industry. There was a time when there were police, and there were security guards. The former kept the peace, the latter were either used to transport money around or you’d sometimes see them in shopping centres. Now they seem to be everywhere and their assumed powers have also grown.

There’s the parking scams when private companies send ‘summonses’ to motorists who’ve inadvertently parked in the wrong place, or for too long. Civil recovery is used to levy spot fines on suspected shoplifters, with no redress to legal advice nor right of appeal. There are the increasing number of housing estates patrolled by private security firms and the way in which employees of these companies regularly flout the law in other areas, as described by Press columnist Steve Beauchampe last year.

The government has shown a repeated tendency to contract out its duties to unaccountable private companies and G4S has already won contracts in roles traditionally performed by police, such as rape counselling and custody suite provision. The line grows ever-more blurred.

The council also help in this development. A couple of months ago I saw someone described on his clothing as an Enforcement Officer on New Street. Dark glasses, dressed in black, he was working alongside a PCSO. His job seemed to be telling people to pick up litter, which in its own way is commendable enough although anyone who visits the city centre regularly could tell you of at least a hundred places in Birmingham where rubbish dumping is a greater problem than at the bottom end of New Street.

Then he started talking to a group of young people, asking questions of them and writing down their replies. He appeared to be taking their names and addresses, which he was not entitled to do. The police can’t do that in normal circumstances, unless they suspect a crime has been committed. Yet this council employee was doing so in the presence of his PCSO accomplice, who would have known that the Enforcement Officer was exceeding his authority yet stood by while this happened.

It might seem a minor point, but all sorts of minor liberties are being eroded every day. Proving your age used to be something that only applied if you looked under 18. Now many shops apply an under-25 rule, as an entire generation become used to carrying identity cards. It’s said that during the average day we are filmed on CCTV 300 times, with no idea how the film is subsequently used. And in general we approve, because we’re told it’s for our own good. Why is Britain the only country in the world where this happens?

How long, I wonder, before doormen and other security guards are allowed to use tasers, or handcuffs? You can smile at the thought but did you think a week ago that you’d ever read about them using breathalysers?