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

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.