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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Britain's shrinking democracy

10 million people - more than voted for Labour in May - will be excluded from the new electoral roll.

Despite all the warnings the government is determined to press ahead with its decision to close the existing electoral roll on December 1. This red letter day in British politics is no cause for celebration. As the Smith Institute’s latest report on the switch to the new system of voter registration shows, we are about to dramatically shrink our democracy.  As many as 10 million people are likely to vanish from the electoral register for ever – equal to 20 per cent of the total electorate and greater than Labour’s entire vote in the 2015 general election. 

Anyone who has not transferred over to the new individual electoral registration system by next Tuesday will be “dropped off” the register. The independent Electoral Commission, mindful of how the loss of voters will play out in forthcoming elections, say they need at least another year to ensure the new accuracy and completeness of the registers.

Nearly half a million voters (mostly the young and those in private rented homes) will disappear from the London register. According to a recent HeraldScotland survey around 100,000 residents in Glasgow may also be left off the new system. The picture is likely to be much the same in other cities, especially in places where there’s greater mobility and concentrations of students.

These depleted registers across the UK will impact more on marginal Labour seats, especially  where turnout is already low. Conversely, they will benefit Tories in future local, Euro and general elections. As the Smith Institute report observers, Conservative voters tend to be older, home owners and less transient – and therefore more likely to appear on the electoral register.

The government continues to ignore the prospect of skewed election results owing to an incomplete electoral registers. The attitude of some Tory MPs hardly helping. For example, Eleanor Laing MP (the former shadow minister for justice) told the BBC that “if a young person cannot organize the filling in of a form that registers them to vote, they don’t deserve the right to vote”.  Leaving aside such glib remarks, what we do know is the new registers will tend to favour MPs whose support is found in more affluent rural and semi-rural areas which have stable populations.  

Even more worrying, the forthcoming changes to MPs constituencies (under the Boundary Review) will be based on the new electoral register. The new parliamentary constituencies will be based not on the voting population, but on an inaccurate and incomplete register. As Institute’s report argues, these changes are likely to unjustly benefit UKIP and the Conservative party.

That’s not to say that the voter registration system doesn’t need reforming.  It clearly does. Indeed, every evidence-based analysis of electoral registers over the last 20 years shows that both accuracy and completeness are declining – the two features of any electoral register that make it credible or not. But, the job must be done properly.  Casually leaving 10m voters off the electoral resister hardly suggests every effort has been made.

The legitimacy of our democratic system rests on ensuring that everyone can exercise their right to vote. This is a task which shouldn’t brook complacency or compromise.  We should be aiming for maximum voter registration, not settling for a system where one in five drop off the register.