What do you do when a monopoly service provider has become so inefficient, so detached from customer needs and so expensive as to offer very poor value? When the GPO had a three month waiting list for new telephones, and a phone call cost the price of a pint of beer, introducing competition was viewed with dismay by many traditionalists who held that only the State could or should provide a public telecommunications service. The Copper network was a natural monopoly, they said. Well, as we know now, they were wrong.
Similarly there will be howls of outrage at the suggestion that we should introduce competition to policing. Yet the comments in response to a guest blog post on Iain Dale's site are completely typical of our experience of the police. London has 30,000 police officers; that's about 1,000 per borough. Yet at any time no more than a couple of dozen are available in my borough to respond to calls or patrol the streets. Regulation and targets won't improve this - the only thing that will is competition. The Copper network isn't a natural monopoly.
Forget the specialist units for the moment - Special Branch, the diplomatic protection squad and the like - it's local neighbourhood uniformed policing that can go to tender. Of course, it would have to be on a geographic basis, that of a council ward or parish, and would need a ballot. The 'private' force would have access to the Police National Computer and similar resources in the same way as private telcos can access the BT exchanges.
Jacqui Smith's proposals to allow the police to train and licence private security guards to carry out local policing functions is actually a good thing. This should be expanded to allow individuals to qualify as fully authorised police officers. And legislation brought forward to allow competition at local level for basic police functions - keeping our streets and property safe, pursuing malefactors and answering to the local people that they serve.
Costs would plummet. Efficiency would soar. We would regain local police forces answerable to us and not to the Home Secretary. Where's the catch?