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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.

The G4S sign. Photo: Getty

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.