Police chiefs who have invited bids for a £1.5bn contract to deliver services in West Midlands and Surrey have hit back at critics, arguing that their reforms will not privatise the force.

A bidders’ conference on Tuesday was attended by 64 companies, highlighting the strong interest among private contractors, despite the anxiety surrounding the potential outsourcing of frontline services.

The contract has the backing of the Home Office, which is understood to have provided £2m towards the procurement costs on the understanding that the police service “as a whole” can benefit from the example set by the two forces. The department would not, however, be a signatory to any agreement with a supplier, which will be managed by the forces alone.

Speaking after the conference, Chris Sims, chief constable of West Midlands Police, tried to counter criticism that the contract was a cost-cutting measure driven by reductions in government funding.

“We are very, very aware that this is an emotive subject …[and] can be presented in terms of language like outsourcing and privatisation – it isn’t that,” Mr Sims said. “The proposition is: let us bring a commercial partner who could bring expertise, bring experience, bring technology that will allow us to transform how we do things.”

Mr Sims attempted to distance the plan from a £200m, 10-year contract agreed last month between Lincolnshire police and G4S, the security company, to build and staff a new police station. “This isn’t us saying to a private provider, ‘do away and deliver what we are currently delivering for less money’ ”, Mr Sims said.

Lynne Owens, chief constable of Surrey Police, defended the decision, promising that neighbourhood policing, investigations and firearms work would “never ever” be handed over to a private company. This contradicts a contract note published two weeks ago, which mooted the idea that bidders could be involved in investigating crimes and carrying out patrols.

“All we have done today is have a meeting with a private group of people and said: ‘This is how we are thinking. You tell us what it is you can do’,” Ms Owens added.

The conference was attended by companies including G4S, Serco, Capgemini and Steria, which already run services for police forces. Others such as Babcock, Securitas and Virgin Media were also present.

Unison and Unite unions voiced their opposition to the plans, pointing out that a £1.5bn contract would place 10 per cent of total police funding in the hands of a private company. If other forces join the contract, which is an option in the bidding process, this figure could rise to a quarter of all police funding.

Ben Priestley, Unison’s national officer for police staff, said the plans were “dangerous” and should be “stopped fast”.

“We know that forces are under the cosh from the government’s 20 per cent cut to police funding,” he said. “Privatisation is supposed to save money but this can only happen by slashing the police services on which the public rely to keep them safe and by employing cut-price staff.”

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