It's barmy to pay for police vetting

OPINION: 

It's a gorgeous day in Wellington and you turn up at the Cake Tin for a cricket international.

"Would you like police protection with that?" asks the friendly attendant as you pay for your ticket. 'The Barmy Army is usually well-behaved, but if you pay extra then you can sit somewhere that is policed."

Being a Newtown cheapskate, you refuse to pay, sit in a non-policed zone, and get hit on the head by a flying object.

In the ambulance to hospital, you come to an intersection with broken traffic lights so is manned by a police officer.

"Bugger, another user-pays intersection," says the ambulance officer as she takes your bloodstained eftpos card from your pocket and hands it over to the police officer directing traffic. Luckily the officer has a mobile eftpos machine so you only wait 30 minutes to get through.

The underfunded public hospital has a long wait, but luckily a kind volunteer is assigned to look after you. Unluckily, that volunteer gives you unwelcome physical attention as you drift into a coma. "Sorry about that," says the doctor when you later complain, "we can't afford police charges to vet volunteers so we let anyone help. That guy came highly recommended from a church".

When you finally get home, you discover you have been burgled. Two police turn up immediately. One brings out a glossy folder. "Would you like to pay for our beginner, 'We'll Have a Go But Probably Won't Find the Burglar' plan or our slightly more comprehensive 'We'll Raid a Few Houses and Ask Around' plan, or our deluxe 'We'll Nab the Bastard No Matter What' plan?"

You pay for the third plan, nicknamed "the Judith Collins". Out comes the ubiquitous mobile eftpos machine and for a $200 fee, the stolen goods are recovered within a week.

Does my far-fetched scenario sound like I have been smoking something I shouldn't? Yes, but if you bother to check out what our Government is proposing in its Policing (Cost Recovery) Amendment Bill, you will find my tale may not be as barmy as you think.

Presently, if a school employs staff or a charity employs a volunteer, a free police check is often carried out. This vetting protects non-profit organisations from employing someone with an undisclosed criminal record and, more importantly, protects the community, especially children.

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But the Government wants non-profit organisations, or their volunteers, to pay for the "privilege" of being vetted. The suggested charge, $7, is modest, but there would be nothing to stop these charges being ramped up to the $40 - $50 that you pay in Aussie, once the cost recovery system is set up. Remember back when ACC fees were fair?

So why is our Government wanting to charge people for police services that are in the public good?

Such services can also benefit individuals. Organise an outdoor concert and you may benefit financially, so if you ask the police to assist with crowd control then shouldn't you pay? Maybe, but isn't your concert contributing to the public good? If you're a taxpayer then you have already paid to fund the police. Why pay twice?

Then again, every time there's a big National Party meeting, the police waste valuable time by evicting stroppy protesters. Could police add a $5 "Sue Bradford surcharge" to membership fees of the National Party?

Why this bill specifically mentions the vetting of people, sometimes working voluntarily, beats me. According to former police minister Anne Tolley, exemptions can be granted. But critics of the bill say that it opens the doors to the privatisation of our police force.

It seems that money is the root of the problem. Police funding has declined in real terms by about $90 million over the last four years. If the police can recover costs from some activities, funding can be maintained, and Finance Minister Bill English can reach his magical surplus without taxes being raised.

Yet for many of us, separating out the police's so-called "public" and "private" good seems madness. Is the real "Barmy Army" the platoon of suited neo-liberals who know the price of everything that our police force does, but the value of none of it?

 - The Dominion Post

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