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

Should we have seen this coming?

New Statesman
Photograph: Getty Images

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?