G4S is just the latest in a long line of outsourcing disasters

When will we learn?

The left has long understood many of the many problems of outsourcing: the fact that it typically replaces at least semi-decently paid, full-time staff, with career paths and a commitment to the service ethic, with a casualised, often minimum wage, rapidly-changing group of workers who are struggling to survive – often working two or three jobs. (Even in “professional” areas such as GP surgeries and IT, relatively low pay and casualisation is the norm.) The cash not going to the work force is redirected into shareholders' pockets, all too often through off-shore, tax haven companies that fail to contribute tax to the society in which they're based, from which they’re extracting profits.

But most of all, we’ve understood that it doesn’t work. We’ve seen it fail again and again. The outsourcing of hospital cleaners contributed to a rise in hospital-acquired infections and super-bugs. Multiple government IT projects have gone seriously and expensively off the rails. Then there’s the still unfolding scandal of the ruinously expensive PFI scheme for hospitals (and other public institutions such as schools) which has just claimed its first victim, with the South London Healthcare NHS Trust going into administration. And railways and the Tube, and call centres…. the list goes on and on.

And now we’re finding, with G4S unable to guarantee that it will provide the contracted staff for the Olympics, that we’re calling on the army to help. So visitors to London will see a militarised Olympics, with expensively trained soldiers doing work that they have no training, and possibly no inclination, for. It’s difficult to know which is worse soldiers doing jobs they aren’t suited for or for that work to be done by some of the many £2.60/hour security “apprentices” that we learnt about during the Jubilee security outsourcing scandal. These arrangements for Olympics security may not be a recipe for public safety or confidence.

The writing is on the wall, but a lot more still has to be done to highlight the basic flaw of outsourcing, the reason why it does not, cannot work: the supplier of outsourced services and the purchaser have different objectives. It's as though your service is balanced on a rubber band held by two people running in different directions. Sooner or later it is going to snap, or one side be dragged back.

One small example from my working life, details anonymised for contractual reasons. At one time a widget producer had staff security people, who understood their job to be assisting in the smooth production of widgets. They knew the company, they knew the staff, they understood at least a bit about making widgets, and they used their common sense, their knowledge and some flexibility in applying the security rules to assist in the making of widgets. Then they were outsourced. New staff came in, employed by the security firm, for the purposes of security. They applied the rules as laid down by their company rigidly and inflexibly (indeed they were at risk of losing their job if they didn’t).

They didn’t know or care about the production of widgets, or that they were actively hampering their production. One told me – while I was trying to get a freelance widget worker through the system: “We’re subject to penetration tests you know.” (And no this wasn’t MI5 or Scotland Yard.) Cue rampant frustration, many wasted hours of staff time and a considerably less pleasant working environment. And fewer widgets produced.

As with so many aspects of our neo-liberal, hypercapitalist economy, outsourcing doesn’t work even in its own terms. It is a disaster, on financial, service and social grounds. We've got a government now that's ideologically wedded to it, as part of the "market knows best" religion, despite the obvious collapse of the case for that creed in the past few years, and the main opposition party that finds itself too close to its past failures to publicly recant – even if it wanted to, which given the return of Tony Blair you’d have to conclude it doesn’t. On top of that, we've got a whole generation of people in senior public service and private sector management with crisp, expensive and intellectually mediocre-to-worthless MBAs in this outsourcing "religion", who lack the knowledge of any other approach or the ability to adapt to the obvious facts under their nose.

There's a long road ahead to reverse direction from this outsourcing dead end. But we can start by saying, loudly, clearly and often, that outsourcing is a disaster. It does not, cannot, work as well as forms of organisation based on shared goals, whether they be co-operatives or public ownership at local or national level, or at least a company in which permanent, decently paid staff are working together towards the same aim.

Natalie Bennett is chair of Green Party Women and the former editor of the Guardian Weekly


Soldiers have been drafted in to help with security at the 2012 Olympics after G4S failed to recruit enough staff. Photograph: Getty

Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales and a former editor of Guardian Weekly.

Photo: Getty Images
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No, Matt Hancock: under-25s are just as entitled to a payrise as the rest of us

At 25, parts of my body were more productive than the whole of Matt Hancock, says Jess Phillips.

I had never heard of Matt Hancock before today, which may be a sign of how productive he has been. He sprang up in my consciousness when he said this at the Tory party conference, when justifying not giving workers under 25 a payrise:

"Anybody who has employed people knows that younger people, especially in their first jobs, are not as productive, on average. Now there are some who are very productive under the age of 25 but you have to set policy for the average. It was an active choice not to cover the under 25s.”
No it bloody wasn't an active choice based on productivity! Lord knows this Government have failed to remember productivity for the past five years. How convenient to remember it when swindling young people.

Let's pretend for a minute that the Governments living wage is just that. Is Matt Hancock saying  that workers under 25 don't deserve to afford be able to live? By the time I was 25 I had a 3 year old. Did my son and I not deserve to be able to live? Oh and while they are there telling me I'm was an undeserving yoof, Hancock is now calling me useless. I don't know Matt Hancock I won't assume he was a lazy entitled toff, but I will wager at 23 I was as, if not more productive than him. I bet you I could have done his job, but he would have struggled to do mine. Maybe I'm wrong and he would have been a great support worker for refugees and carer for people with Alzheimer's all on three hours sleep a night whilst lactating.

Now, I'm not being fair. Of course he couldn't lactate.

The reason the government did this is nothing to do with productivity levels of young adults. It is because once again their limited life experience means that they think mummy and daddy pay for everything. Look no further than ridiculous student fees, cutting housing benefit for young people and now this "you don't deserve to be able to live" wage.

The hilarious thing will be when some employers completely disprove Hancock’s assertions and rush to employ lazy unproductive under 25s because they have to pay them less.
I won't bore you or Hancock with lists of brilliant examples of productive under 25s. The Twitter hashtag #at25 is full of great examples. The history of sport, science, music, art and computing is awash with inspiring world changing young people.Mr Hancock, here is a lesson I learned from the hundreds of productive young people I meet, be honest and say what you think. Your insulting gaffe is a pathetic spun cover up you arrived at when you were backed in to an impossible unjustifiable position. What you should have said was, "oh the reason we don't want to pay under 25s more is because we don't really care about them and let's be honest they don't really vote. Toodle pip."