Outsourcing, the exploitation of prisoners and my Twitter ruck with G4S

Hang on. If G4S aren't employing prisoners at £5 a day in order to boost their profits - then who is?

To Twitter, then, for an entertaining spat: something of an occupational hazard for a New Statesman writer these days. 

Said spat wasn't, for a pleasing change, the subject of my privilege and platform. I was bemoaning the furious assaults I have suffered from a "certain strand" of Twitter users over this issue to my valet only the other day. Suffice to say his advice - go and write for a proper publication like the Telegraph or Spectator because their writers receive far less grief from the unwashed internet masses - nearly made me choke on my swan. Everyone knows socialists have the best champagne.

Anyway, I was struck by a discussion between Nicola Savage, Head of Press for G4S, and Frances Crook, of the Howard League for Penal Reform. Ms Crook was outraged by a story that appeared in this week's Daily Mail. If I may quote from Mr Dacre's excellent organ:

Prisoners are earning £20 a week phoning householders and quizzing them about their valuables.

Burglars and other criminals are asking unsuspecting families if they would like to save money on their home insurance.

The inmates get paid to read from a script which includes asking potential customers their names and postcodes.

They also inquire about the total value of their possessions – including details of any worth large sums.

Golly. As Ms Crook put it: 

Ms Savage responded:

This went on for a while. I, separately, provided a link to the discussion, which was spotted by Ms Savage, who corrected me on a crucial detail.

And lo. Alan was in the soup, without a paddle.

There was nothing to do but beat a hasty retreat. Except - hang on. If G4S aren't employing prisoners at £5 a day in order to boost their profits - then who is? The news reports cited "insurance companies" (Ms Savage would later clarify that it's a "consumer lifestyle survey", whatever that is, too), but didn't name them. Who are they? I asked a question to which I already knew the answer:

You'll note the perhaps overly aggressive use of the ".@" there: in my frayed mental state I had broken one of my esteemed editor's rules of Twitter. On such issues she is as Debrett's. I fear she will be gently upbraiding me in Beach Blanket Babylon this evening.

Needless to say: the silence from Ms Savage was germane. Perhaps you feel this is a shameful exploitation of society's vulnerable to fill the pockets of greedy companies. Perhaps you feel it's a positive attempt to prepare our prisoners for the world of work. The point is that you should have a right to know which companies are making use of what's essentially a Government scheme, and commend, upbraid, boycott or whatever you feel is the appropriate response to them. But you can't. It's the outsourcing process in a nutshell. It lacks transparency, and that means it looks like it stinks, even if it doesn't.

To the Garrick. Enjoy your weekend.

G4S. Photo: Getty

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.