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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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?