The G4S failures aren't an isolated case - they show up the failure of an entire ideology

Following the Olympic fiasco, an official report suggests setting up a "list of high-risk providers, who have a track-record of failure in the delivery of public services". That's not enough.

G4S hasn’t had a good time of it of late. Today’s Home Office Select Committee report says that blame over the Olympic fiasco rests "firmly and solely" with the company. It urges G4S not to accept its £57m management fee.

Now that might sound like quite a hit. It’s not. G4S receives £759m from the taxpayer every year, through contracts with 10 central Government departments and agencies, and 14 police forces in England and Wales.

The report recommends setting up “a register of high-risk providers, who have a track-record of failure in the delivery of public services [...] This would provide a single source of information for those conducting procurement exercises about companies which are failing or have failed in the delivery of public contracts." The Government, in response, swiftly pointed to a June announcement that it would “take the performance history of our suppliers into account during the procurement process”.

I can’t help but find it odd, this sudden belief in the necessity of accountability. Look, I’m not a politician. I have no experience in contracting out work beyond leaving the washing up and hoping someone else does it. But if I were, I kind of think I’d have seen a few warning signs prior to the Olympic scandal. I’d probably have started with the Wikipedia entry of the company I was dealing with, for a start. There I’d have seen a list of failures stretching right the way back to 1993. But you know, anyone can put anything on Wikipedia.

Still, I might have heard about what happened three years ago at a G4S immigration removal centre, when a 10-year-old girl - an asylum seeker - was forcibly arrested and locked up, let go, arrested and locked up again - the distressful treatment causing her to attempt to hang herself. And I’d almost certainly have known what happened a year later, when three G4S security guards restrained Angolan deportee Jimmy Mubenga, he lost consciousness and later died - this despite an internal document urging management to meet the problem of the use of lethal force “head-on, before the worst happens”. (The company released a statement saying: "The welfare of detainees in our custody is our top priority and we take any allegations of mistreatment extremely seriously.")

If I’d missed that, perhaps I’d have spotted another report one year later, when staff working for the chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, saw G4S staff using using "offensive and sometimes racist language" on a flight to Nigeria. According to the Independent: “Handcuffs and other restraint techniques were used inappropriately. Staff working for G4S were overheard referring to detainees as ‘gippos’, ‘pikeys’ and ‘typical Asians’.”

But I guess that’s fine. We’re Brits. We don’t like asylum seekers anyway, do we? But what if, last year, I’d read this essential, in-depth report from OpenDemocracy into the death of a man in Australia, cooked to death while being transported more than 220 miles across the bush in a van with faulty air conditioning in January 2008? What if I’d read of the company’s spinning strategies in that case, of how it attempted to shift the blame to two members of its staff, of how it had previously weaselled its way around competition law? I don’t know, maybe I’d have wondered if this was a company which was getting too big for its boots.

And what about this year? What if I’d read about a far-less reported story - that of a G4S custody officer at the Medway training centre in Kent (which offers “support, guidance” and “child care best practice”), who Private Eye reported suffered minor burns after a cheese sandwich was thrown at him, prompting other members of staff to take to his Facebook page and describe the youths in their care as “fucking cunts” and “fucking arseholes”? After a letter from the Howard League for Penal Reform an internal inquiry was carried out - apparently two members of staff have already been sacked and more are to follow.

Maybe by now, I’d have begun to wonder if these all these stories weren’t the result of a few rogue members of staff, but instead were emblematic of a cultural problem coming from the top. But then, if I were a politician, maybe these aren’t the kinds of stories I’d want to hear. I mean, if I were a politician, I could potentially pick up fees of £50,000 a year from G4S before I’d even left Parliament, before becoming a director of the firm.

And of course, if I’d heard that there should be a register of underperforming firms, I’d be worried, because there’s just so much invested in this one, and given what’s happened with the Olympics, you could say there was an element of hypocrisy to some of the work it’s now doing. Take one example: G4S earns £183m to help the unemployed find work through the Government’s Work Programme. During the first eight months of the programme it asked benefit offices to “sanction” 7,780 claimants who hadn’t turned up or done what they were told on their employment schemes. 

But nevertheless, G4S is keen to stamp out the scroungers - it's been known to use secret surveillance techniques to do so, a tactic at which even the Daily Mail gasped. And as the excellent Clare Sambrook has pointed out, surveillance is big business, and damn the societal consequences - tracking people for insurance companies, monitoring tagged offenders, promoting biometrics to help employers keep an eye on their workers, flogging number plate recognition technology to retailers so they can tell how often customers drop by, creeping into the police’s traditional roles, putting CCTV in schools - it’s all about G4S’s motto of “Securing Your World”.

And this company has its fingers in so very many pies. Health, would you believe. It took Private Eye to show that earlier this year non-emergency G4S drivers for St George’s hospitals are paid below the minimum wage, that bullying is rife, turnover high, and morale low. One under-trained staffer revealed that his first week involved taking end-of-life cancer patients home on stretchers, hooking up oxygen cylinders, telling friends and families that ‘everything would be alright’, signing off “Do Not Resuscitate” papers and helping carry overweight patients up stairs. Another told the magazine: “There really shouldn’t be a role for G4S in the health service. [The words] G4S and care do not belong in the same sentence.”

Why are our politicians so happy to rely on this hulking corporate behemoth with a track record of unreliability, intrusion and cruelty? It’s pretty simple. Britain is in the biggest wave of Government outsourcing since the 1980s. The Coalition, of course, won’t talk about “outsourcing” - not a very Lib Dem-friendly term - so we instead hear of “open public services”. All this part of a drive to allegedly save money and restrict the state’s role.

There is conflicting academic evidence about the efficiency savings - but perhaps they don’t matter. What matters rather more is the appearance of efficiency. An example: G4S has recently taken on the Oakwood prison contract, which is valued at £349m. According to an FOI request, again by Private Eye, it would cost £498m to run it in the private sector. But the Ministry of Justice has decided it’s not in the public interest to show exactly how these savings will be generated. As the magazine asks: “Could that be because, like the Private Finance Initiative before it, outsourcing depends on heroically optimistic financial projections and fiddled calculations?”

Now, even the sainted P. Toynbee of Guardian Towers has admitted that there are some benefits to outsourcing (as long as it’s done in a nice way, by nice Labour politicians). But let’s not kid ourselves it’s creating competition. No - the likes of G4S, A4e (of fraud claims fame), Serco and Capita (both of too many failures to mention fame) are the only shows in town. The services in which they specialise are of use only to the state. So you have a relentless drive for profit, and no real competition.  And let’s not pretend that any "efficiency savings" will be generated through much more than the kind of wage practices faced by the St George’s ambulance drivers.

And then we wonder why six out of ten people who use food banks are from working households. The G4S Olympic fiasco wasn’t just a story about one company’s failure to deliver a contract. It was about the failure of an ideology. 

The G4S sign. Photo: Getty

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle