TWO Scottish police forces are considering privatising cells in an effort to save money in the face of budget cuts, The Scotsman can reveal.
In what could be the first move towards a part-privatised police service in Scotland, they will hold talks with international security firm G4S tomorrow over the creation and management of new custody suites.
G4S estimates it could save a medium to large force with 200 cells 77 million over four years. It has refused to name the Scottish forces it will be talking to.
However, the move has angered Unison, as civilian police staff already face the threat of redundancy because of 2.6 per cent cuts and merger plans.
The public sector union warned industrial action could not be ruled out.
Forces have been looking to save money and the Scottish Government is running a consultation on merging the current eight into either three or four, or into a single Scottish force.
The transferring of cells to G4S could be the first stage of privatisation of sections of Scotland policing.
G4S, which was previously called Group 4 and already provides services for Staffordshire, Lancashire and South Wales forces south of the Border, also offers building management, fleet management, IT, training, and control room operators.
It has 20,000 former police officers on its books across the UK who can be contracted out for door-to-door inquiries, securing crime scenes and taking fingerprints.
Justice secretary Kenny MacAskill has previously criticised private prisons, saying that jails "are for public safety, not private profit".
However, he refused to be drawn on whether private companies should be allowed to operate police cells.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: "This is entirely a matter for chief constables."
John Shaw, managing director at G4S, who will meet chief officers of the two forces tomorrow, said: "The meeting is to address areas of the estate, particularly where it is an ageing estate, and the level of service we provide. There's obviously interest because budgets are tightening.
"We made the initial inquiries and they got back in touch. Police forces in Scotland have a great track record of being very forward-thinking, compared to England and Wales, but outsourcing is one area where they have some ground to make up.
"They will give us information about arrests and we will go away and come back with hard proposals on savings. The minimum saving is 30 per cent, but that can go up to 45 per cent.
"What makes it attractive is there is no capital investment needed on their part. We take the capital risk and the building risk."
If G4S is given the green light, new cells could be built and taking prisoners within a year.
They take nine months to build on a new site from scratch, although, once a base is established, extensions can be built within a month.
• G4S: 'We could take on almost half the work'
The cells are portable and can be added to or reduced depending on levels of need. So if a force has a major event, such as festival or protest, it can increase capacity for a short period.
A police custody sergeant would continue to be in charge of the cells, and would take decisions over prisoner welfare and whether an individual's rights are being infringed.
Mr Shaw, who was to share the floor with Mr MacAskill at the Policing Scotland Summit in Edinburgh today, said: "All our staff undergo extensive training before they are allowed into the custody environment, including in first aid. They undergo further development while working in the custody suites to a standard in excess of what police require."
G4S would also be answerable to Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary for Scotland.
However, Unison and Scottish Labour and Liberal Democrats believe the case has not yet been made for privatising.Peter Velden, lead negotiator for police staff at Unison, said: "Privatising custody suite officers would concern us greatly. They are valuable public servants and they should be kept in public service.
"If this saves money, it will be through cutting the guys' wages and cutting their allowances."
He added: "We would consult our members, but industrial action could not be ruled out.
"Support staff think they are part of the police family, but it seems the police don't see them as family."
Richard Baker, Scottish Labour justice spokesman, said: "Civilian custody staff do a great job. I do not think that privatisation is the way forward."
Robert Brown, Scottish Liberal Democrats justice spokesman, said: "We must be sure not to rush into this, like we have done with police mergers."
The Scottish Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file officers, said it was open to a degree of privatisation, as long as certain roles continued to be carried out by police officers. Les Gray, chairman, said: "We would be very much opposed to the police not being involved in the custody area at all."
Assistant Chief Constable Cliff Anderson, general secretary of the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpos), said: ""The health, safety and welfare of those brought into police custody must be considered at all times."
One would have expected the idea of privatising the operation of police cells would stand little chance in Scotland, but it seems budget cuts are concentrating minds. Page 28