OK, it was my own fault for forgetting that I was still wearing my belt and triggering the detection gate. What followed, however, was easily the most intrusive search that I have experienced in several years at any UK or US airport. This posting, though, is less about my sense of affront than about the problems of redress created by the privatisation of UK public services.
So I get pulled over and told to remove my belt and shoes, which then disappear. Instead of the usual professional body search with a skilled one-touch passage of the screener’s hands over my clothing, the searcher has me raise each leg on a box while he rubs my thighs vigorously, going well up into the groin area. It is comparable to the kind of massage that I sometimes get from my chiropractor. Given that I am wearing a fairly tight pair of jeans, this, repeated, firm rubbing will detect nothing more than a conventional pat down. It is no justification for the incursion into private body areas. Long experience has taught me that there is no point in confronting low-level staff so I sought out the shift supervisor to complain. She was as smug as might be expected. If I care to put something in writing, this will be considered – but she will make the determination by viewing the CCTV and will be judge and jury in any question about the behaviour of her team. If their searches are more intrusive than elsewhere, this is because they operate to a higher standard than Manchester, Birmingham, Heathrow, East Midlands or Edinburgh, which I have passed through, and where I have observed searches, in the last six months. They perform to the standards set by the UK Department for Transport (DfT) and have recently been reviewed and approved. In other words, I can complain but there is no prospect of bringing about change as a result.
I get the message. There is, of course, some irony in that I am travelling to a conference of symbolic interactionists. One of the most widely cited papers in that tradition deals with the dramaturgy of intimate examinations and how these are conducted in a ‘professional’ manner! I am not suggesting that the screener was deriving any inappropriate gratification from his over-enthusiastic body search. His supervisor, no doubt, thinks she has contributed to meeting some quality target for an absence of complaints by underlining the pointlessness of investing time and effort in that activity. What I am reflecting on, though, is the lack of public accountability. The supervisor told me that her company was carrying out DfT instructions. The DfT has responded to several Freedom of Information requests by stating that detailed implementation of general requirements for a body search is solely a matter for the private contractors involved. They will not intervene. The privatisation of a public responsibility means that it is being discharged without effective public oversight. We can contrast this with the effective consumer backlash against over-intrusive searching by US screeners in the US, who remain public employees. Legislators notice when voters complain.
Such dilution of accountability is becoming increasingly common in the UK. Recent cases have included villagers who discovered that they could not prevent the company that had taken over their school from deciding to bus their children to another village. There are a growing number of examples in health and social care where contracting-out has diffused accountability for routine practice until this reaches the dimensions of a scandal. We have neither an effective market nor an effective regulator, with elected representatives excluded by ‘commercial sensitivity’.
In the field of safety and security, the gold-plating of regulation is also inherent in this privatised model. I have recently been working with health and safety professionals who are constantly frustrated by the same phenomenon. Whole industries have grown up around the impossible dreams of total prevention. How can anyone object to an extra increment of cost or intrusion if it promotes a marginal gain in safety or security? The point, of course, is that these marginal gains come with increasing marginal costs that ultimately discredit the whole enterprise. Rubbing my thighs three or four times does not produce any discernible increase in security while greatly increasing my level of annoyance.
The UK government has given some recognition to this in its attempt to introduce Better Regulation principles to airport security. These do not, though, seem likely to take us much further forward because of the lack of consumer input – this is strikingly absent from the responses to its consultation process. It is another contrast to the public service model in the US, where the Transportation Security Administration has to encourage public comments on proposed rule-making.
Privatised airport security is a classic case of market failure. From the consumer’s perspective, airports are an oligopoly where there are few opportunities to exert effective pressures by choice of departure point. If we cannot remedy this by effective political oversight, the textbook answer is an independent regulator to control the abuses that such situations inevitably generate. The regulator must be encouraged to push back against the constant pressure to ratchet up interventions ‘just in case’, through a critical examination of the interests promoting new layers of surveillance and intrusion, and to offer impartial review and redress of consumer complaints.
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