The Metropolitan Police has come under fire after it emerged Richard Branson’s Virgin company paid the Met police £5,060 towards carrying out an investigation involving Virgin’s TV boxes.
After the convictions of 3 defendants in a recent fraud case, it became apparent that Virgin Media paid the police for overtime to conduct raids in east London. The police raids aimed to prove that viewers were using Virgin television boxes without paying for the channels they were watching. The scam would have potentially allowed thousands of viewers to avoid paying fees, costing Virgin millions of pounds.
The issue here, is not whether fraud was being committed by these individuals, but whether it is correct for investigations conducted by the Metropolitan police to be funded by private corporations, who have a direct interest in the operation. The raids were clearly not a priority in terms of the gravity of the crime, therefore the attention given to the case appears to have been induced by money rather than importance. The police raids, which were carried out in east London in 2008, netted 5,000 set-top boxes and £90,000 in cash. Three men were convicted and imprisoned as a result. However, one of the men is now seeking to quash his conviction on the grounds that the police only investigated him because of the money offered by Virgin.
The private work of public services, at a time when public services are already stretched, is alarming. How common are such practices in the Met police? This information has come to light at a difficult time for the Met police, which has been facing widespread criticism for its handling of the riots and its role in the recent bribery scandal involving Sun journalists. The cuts to the police force are most likely going to stretch their capacity further, and these practices could be harmful by taking away from the high demand for policing across London. Jenny Jones, Green Party mayoral candidate and member in the London Assembly, voiced her concerns on the issue:
“It’s like private policing and I am really shocked that somebody thought this was OK. The police should not accept huge payments from wealthy companies to investigate crimes on their behalf.”
She added that this kind of practice could have a detrimental effect on the role taken by the Met Police in tackling serious crime.
“It means such paid work could take priority over murder, rape or child abuse cases, which would distort the Met’s priorities for London.”
Ms Jones stated that she will raise the issue with the Met Commissioner and the deputy mayor for policing.
A Virgin Media spokeswoman said that the joint operation between Virgin Media and the Metropolitan Police, was in accordance with the Police Act 1996. She also claimed that details of the arrangement were fully disclosed in court. The written agreement Between the police authority and Virgin, also guaranteed the Met a ‘cash donation.’ This would amount to 25 per cent of any compensation awarded to Virgin, following a successful conviction over the fraud.
Civil rights groups have accused the police of being selective in their treatment of victims of crime. Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said:
“Times may be tough but that’s no excuse for turning the police into hired guns for those wealthy enough to pursue crimes against them.”
She added that being motivated by money could affect the way that police prioritise their actions in terms of payment and neglect those in need.
“Taking a percentage of a victim’s remuneration is bad enough but even worse is the thought of those in greatest need of protection being turned away in favour of those who can afford to pay.”
As a public service, should it be possible to hire the police for carrying out investigations on behalf of large companies? These practises open the door for murky behaviour by a service that should serve the public interest and uphold the law. It seems to go against the principles of transparency if you can hire the police, in the same way that companies hire mercenaries in failed states, to act on your behalf provided you can pay them. The police must be entirely independent from the influence of private enterprise, in order to sufficiently uphold the law. The police work to protect the public and keep a degree of order, they are not to be used as cheap labour that carry out specific assignments in the interest of and funded by private corporations.
The Met declined to comment for legal reasons.