How local democracy is increasingly policed by private security


12:20 pm - September 1st 2011

by Martin Williams    


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In March, local London newspaper Ham & High reported that the Tory-run Barnet Council were paying a private security company to secretly film residents at open meetings.

The farcical “MetPro Rapid Response Ltd.”, which described itself as an “alternative to 999″, were paid almost £1m over two-and-a-quarter years before they went bust this year.

Now, documents uncovered by accessdocs.wordpress.com have revealed how private security firms are regularly used by other councils across England and Wales to “control the public”.

In one case, Portsmouth Council called in a private security company to a total of 31 public meetings between 2009-2010. They explained it was because “Protesting and placards etc are not allowed at public meetings”.

Elsewhere, Shepway Council paid out £840 for a firm to police a single public meeting about the expansion of Lydd Airport. The council stated: “This company was hired to control the public outside the building”.

The full number of councils using private security companies in public open meetings is hard to pinpoint exactly as many councils have ongoing security contracts, regardless of specific meetings or events. However, other councils which appear to have paid for meetings to be policed include Basildon, Bassetlaw, Craven District, Oxfordshire, Sheffield, Somerset, Surrey Heath and Crawley Council who paid a security company £2,475 for a single “Planning Development Control” meeting last year.

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About the author
Martin is a regular contributor, and a freelance journalist. He has written for the Guardian, The Independent, The Sun and The Mirror. He blogs at Access Docs and focuses on FOI and investigative journalism. His own website is here.
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Reader comments


MetPro Group Emergency Rapid Response? look at the picture, who do they think they are the NYPD? sheesh, it would be funny if it wasn’t so scary

At least they ain’t Belltower.

3. Robert the crip

Bit like Labour paying a private firm to kick out an 84 year old pensioner from it’s conference is it not.

you cannot complain when your own party does the same thing.

4. Mrs Angry, Broken Barnet blog

yes, but the Barnet story was discovered, investigated and pursued with grim determination by the Barnet bloggers …

“Protesting and placards etc are not allowed at public meetings”

Why not?

6. Robert the crip

I suspect councils and government have moved on greatly from democracy.

The Tories just love a paramilitary uniform, eh?

So it turns out the strutting little fascists among the crankier ranks among the Tory vermin are hiring mercenaries to ‘ahem’ defend themselves against the electorate? It apparently means that the same cunts who witter on about a police State are intent on setting up their little fiefdoms?

Well don’t say you weren’t warned, don’t say we didn’t tell you that this was going to happen. Every decent person who voted Tory or Lib Dem sympathiser who thought they were voting for or merely propping a new, softer more liberal Party can claim to have been taken in? No sorry you were warned, behind the façade of the smiling Conservative Party who are interested in ‘freedom’ and citizenship, is the same malevolent heart. These people are our enemies and are little more than thugs, albeit smartly dressed.

They are probably less of a theat to the public than the public-sector police. How many people have they killed or injured, whether by accident or otherwise?

‘They are probably less of a theat to the public than the public-sector police. How many people have they killed or injured, whether by accident or otherwise?’

Dexter Morgan’s less of a threat to the public.

Taking the other side isn’t this a good thing? After these private firms have absolutely no powers at all. So if heaven forfend someone turns up to a public meeting held in a public hall with a placard what are they going to do?

They can’t be denied entry; they can’t be forced out; they can’t have the placard removed from them. At the very most all the private firm can do is call the police which merely highlights the question of exactly why they are there in the first place if not for intimidation value.

flipc @ 10

Yes, but that is the problem. These firms are completely unaccountable and are little more than uniformed thugs. If one of these guys kicks your head in, what are you going to do? Complain to the supervisor?

Whats the problem, they have no more authority than someone wearing a mcdonalds uniform.

How can they control members of the public – repeatedly asking?

@11 – Complain to the police. Is this about security? I wouldnt be surprised if a few MP’s turned up in the books

“If one of these guys kicks your head in, what are you going to do? Complain to the supervisor?”

Report it as a crime and sue them and the company for assault. Precisely the things that are so hard to do when it is the police that are responsible for violent acts.

The two guys look like bouncers in uniforms from the murkier end of ebay. “You can’t come in, your name’s not on the list”

I suspect that the real police have a fairly mixed view of these types.

Cherub@15 and amusingly have less powers than bouncers. The owner of private property can deny entry to whomever they choose provided it’s not done for reasons of discrimination. How do you deny entry to a public meeting particularly one that may be held in a public building?

Jim@11 as per Dave@13’s response. They’re more accountable because you can call the police on them.

Nick @ 14

If only it was that simple, though. These type of ‘business’ work in very murky waters. security firms have nasty reputations for very good reasons and anyway, why would the police bother to tackle the Tory Party’s private little army? They know what side their bread is buttered on.

Our politicians whether local or national are the same Norman thugs who bullied and enslaved the peoples of the U.K. in the 11th Century.
They believe they have the right to do whatever they want and use our money to pay for it.
Nothing changes.

Once a brownshirt always a brownshirt.

Tories hate democracy, Always have done. Power is all that interest them.

Cor! Sally’s back from her hols. Mellow as ever?

@10. FlipC: “They can’t be denied entry; they can’t be forced out; they can’t have the placard removed from them.”

For a public event held in a closed building, all three of those actions may be legitimate:
1. A public event in a closed building does not guarantee access to all. It may be held at the local council chamber or court offices, but entry is not certain. There are some events (open council meetings) where there is a legal right to admission, but not all.
2. If I hold a private party and you inveigle your way into my home, I will ask you to leave. If you don’t leave voluntarily, I will chuck you out. As long as I do not intentionally or negligently cause injury to you, my eviction of you is legal.
3. If I am evicting you from my premises, removal of your placard is reasonable conduct.


Those are minor quibbles. The substantive point raised is that local authorities conduct themselves like reactionary parents. Councils don’t bother to talk with protesters, to explain that a council meeting will not proceed if a banner is unfurled over a balcony, and they don’t appreciate that excessive security diminishes acceptance of their decisions. Democracy requires that decisions are made as openly as possible.

At the same time, protesters have to acknowledge that you don’t wave placards around at council meetings or consultative sessions with concerned citizens. Hold your street protest outdoors.

Yes, I’d generally agree, but there are a couple of points on the other side.

Current protest has a habit of moving beyond ‘placards’ to disrupting normal activity, so security to prevent that is hardly a surprise.

I’d suggest that prevention of *reporting* of meetings is a bigger problem, as also done by this lot – who (agreed) give every appearance of being a bunch of clowns, which brings us back round to the accreditation of bloggers etc.

I’d not be particularly worried by routine helmet cams as they go around their work, provided it is known (website vanished, so no idea how covert ‘covert’ means). It’s as likely to trip them up themselves.

Matt W

Charlieman@21

A public event in a closed building does not guarantee access to all. It may be held at the local council chamber or court offices, but entry is not certain.

There’s an implied invitation to the public; they’d need a legitimate excuse to deny entry which would be or could be reasonably known to the attendees. Once inside they can be asked to leave if their conduct is unbecoming.

If I hold a private party and you inveigle your way into my home, I will ask you to leave. If you don’t leave voluntarily, I will chuck you out. As long as I do not intentionally or negligently cause injury to you, my eviction of you is legal.

Except this isn’t a private party and as I’ve said there’s an implied invitation. Hence my point about them having less powers than if it were.

If I am evicting you from my premises, removal of your placard is reasonable conduct.

No it isn’t unless the placard needed to be removed to allow said eviction from the property.

Remember unless it’s Crown property we’re not dealing with criminal law here; it’s a dispute between two people so the police won’t get involved until the law is broken.

If only it was that simple, though. These type of ‘business’ work in very murky waters. security firms have nasty reputations for very good reasons and anyway, why would the police bother to tackle the Tory Party’s private little army? They know what side their bread is buttered on.

I disagree, seems like conjecture to me.

@23. FlipC: “There’s an implied invitation to the public…”

We appear to be dancing around possible meanings of the word public and how spaces that are described as public should be managed. Note that I used the conditional in my description of three scenarios @21.

We have public houses, public parks and gardens, public toilets etc which are owned by somebody but may be used by anyone who respects their purpose and fellow citizens who use them. Shop keepers open their doors to the public for their own trading benefit and for the benefit of potential customers; admission to private shop property is permitted on the basis of an unspoken agreement about conduct. (There are a few exceptions such as jewellers who operate a door entry or appointment system.)

A full meeting of the local council is like a public garden. Unless there is established cause to deny entrance to an individual, everyone is entitled to attend. A public meeting, whoever organises it, is more like a shop. Come inside if you have an interest, but don’t hassle the people around you; if you act like a prat, expect to be removed.


Libertarians talk about rights, often missing the point that society manages itself by tolerance, manners and common sense. Most citizens do not assert their right to drive straight on at a green traffic light into the broadside of a car that jumped the lights. We bump into one another on the street and mumble apologies to the texting fool that walked into us.

The councils that employed private security for public meetings may well be missing that understanding about how people interact. Assuming that both councillors and officials agreed to the measures, it demonstrates that disrespect for protesters may become cultural; and deployment at 31 public events defines failure. If the tacit understanding that meetings are not demonstrations has broken down, sort it out and deliver public meetings where people treat each other with respect. Increased security will not solve the problem.


A point raised in earlier posts is that the police do not attend the public meetings where private security has been provided. One conclusion from this is that the police consider that public disorder is unlikely and that their presence is not required. Perhaps councillors and officials should reflect on this, diffusing tension before they employ heavyweights.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
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