G4S messes up again - this time with a privately run prison

Should we have seen this coming?

With a certain depressing predictability – remember the shambles of the Olympics security contract – it seems that G4S has made a right botch of running the UK's largest privately-run prison, HMP Oakwood.

A litany of appalling findings in a report from the chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick – high drug use, poor management, high levels of self-harm, failure to deal with disabled prisoners, very poor health provision – is summed up in the report as “unquestionably concerning". Concerning? Talk about a master of understatement.

The Ministry of Justice cannot say it was not warned about the risks in awarding a 15 year £750m contract to G4S to run the first publicly-run prison to be transferred to a private service provider. The Howard League, The Prison Reform Trust and The Prison Officers Association among others all raised concerns when the deal was announced in 2011.Unabashed, the then Justice Minister Ken Clarke said that competitive bidding to run prisons offered innovation, efficiency and better value for money “without compromising standards.” Shame about the last bit.

The latest annual report from G4S excitedly talks about government policy continuing to offer more and more scope for outsourcing of services such as rehabilitation, facilities management and other related services. “We are in a good position to bid for these contracts which are estimated to be worth around £1 billion per annum.” One trusts that G4S may be in a slightly less strong position to cash in on this outsourcing gravy train, at least until it can prove that it is sorting out the mess at HMP Oakwood.

The annual G4S annual report is a surprisingly entertaining read. Highlights include, hidden away on page 63, evidence of G4S real commitment towards prisoner welfare: a donation last year of the princely sum of £9,000. Not a mis-print: it really is £9,000. To be fair, it is more than double the £4,000 G4S donated to poverty relief.

As if the Olympics inbroglio never happened, the government continues to ramp up its largesse in favour of G4S. Last year, government contracts constituted 27 per cent of G4S total revenue. Organic growth in the UK Government sector was 13 per cent and G4S picked up a lengthy list of new deals.

In other botched privatisations – think of the East Coast Main Line – there was scope for the contract to be cancelled when things went awry, albeit National Express got off more lightly than ought to have been the case. Not to mention the egregious decision that it is permitted to continue to run rail services in Essex. Is it too much to hope for, if things do not improve radically and quickly at HMP Oakwood, that G4S will have the contract cancelled?

Photograph: Getty Images

Douglas Blakey is the editor of Retail Banker International

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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