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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Miners against coal: the pit where former Welsh miners are protesting alongside climate change activists

The Merthyr Tydfil miners’ long history of struggle is spurring them on to a whole new form of action.

The retired miners and factory workers at the working men's club in the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil are no strangers to hard times. Our second son was born during the 1984 strike and we had nothing for 12 months, one member tells me. The town continues to struggle with unemployment – last year the rate for men was nearly double that of the UK as a whole – over three decades on from the miners’ strike. But these days the atmosphere at the club is more resigned than radical. A singer croons his way through “Only the Lonely”, while talk at the bar is of better times: days when work was plentiful, days when, “you went down the mine a boy and came up a man”.

When the deep pits closed in the 1980s, Merthyr became a dumping ground – quite literally. Not only is the nearby landfill one of Europe's biggest, the valley is now home to the largest opencast (open-pit) mining operation in the UK. Its towering spoil tips throw a Mordor-esque shadow over the community below, coating homes and lungs alike in dust. 

Even former miners lament the small number of poorly-regulated jobs the Ffos-Y-Fran pit currently provides. Opencast is lorry driving, not mining, is a sentiment I hear repeated across the town, from the club bar to chip shops to the office of the miners’ union itself.

Just as the town's fortunes rose with coal, so they have plummeted as the industry has declined. While the fuel still accounts for around 10 per cent of UK electricity generation on any given day, last year generation fell to its lowest level since the 1950s. The need to decarbonise also looks set to reduce demand further. The effects of last December's Paris climate agreement – and its aim to limit warming below 2C  are already being felt in Wales: the Aberthaw power station is a key destination for Welsh coal, but recently announced plans to reduce its output.

The club's secretary can only think of one member who still works in the mine. Others I encounter chase shifts at the local meat-packing factory, or have to travel for over an hour outside the town. Support for jobs unsurprisingly usually trumps support for climate change deals: “If it brings in work, we don’t have a problem with it,” is the general consensus inside the club. If someone tells you they're against the mine, they're probably from England, not Wales, says a resident of the nearby village of Fochriw. 

The people of Merthyr, however, are also no strangers to fighting perceived injustice. In the early nineteenth century, Merthyr's thriving ironworks made it the largest town in Wales. But when depression hit in 1831, low wages and sudden dismissals drove many to despair. By the start of June that year, thousands gathered to march against the iron masters and coal barons. And for the very first time, the red flag of revolution was raised on British soil.

185 years later, while club members sipped their drinks, others are writing Merthyr's history afresh. Up on the hills above the town  beyond the litter-strewn fields and the “Danger: No trespass” signs  around 300 campaigners from across the UK gathered to call for an end to coal.

Led by the climate activist group Reclaim the Power, many of the camp’s young attendees work for Westminster MPs and NGOs. A litter-pick was followed by the rapid erection of communal kitchens and sustainable loos. There were safe spaces, legal training, and warnings not to disturb the nearby nesting birds.

On Tuesday morning, the activists occupied and (temporarily) shut down operations at the mine – tying themselves to machinery and lying across access roads in an attempt to symbolise the red line that carbon emissions must not cross. Their action is the first in a fortnight of global anti-fossil fuel protests  from plans for train heists in Albany, to protesting in kayaks in Vancouver. And while global reach counts for little without local support, the climate campaigners at Ffos-Y-Fran are not alone.

Since 2007, members of the United Valleys Action Group (UVAG), a group of local residents and ex-miners, have also fought the mine's planned expansion into the nextdoor valley. On Tuesday, many joined with the activists to blockade the entrance to the mine's headquarters. One member, 56-year-old Phil Duggan, has worked in the pits from the age of 16. And while he is “no tree-hugger”, he is tired of accepting jobs at any cost.

I don't want my children to suffer the ill health I have,” he says. “To some extent we [ex-miners] have been able to claim compensation. But the way things are going now you're not going to be able to claim anything. The deregulation of employment is making people desperate  we're going back to an era that our fore-fathers unionised to put right.”

In a strange twist of fate, it’s these Merthyr miners history of struggle – their long fight to protect their livelihoods and communities  which now spurs them to action against new mines.


Phil Duggan entered the pits aged 16. Photos: India Bourke

Wayne Thomas at the National Union of Mineworkers says he recognises that, unless carbon capture technology can develop apace, the Paris agreement looks set to speed up  coal's decline. But he also believes that British coal has its place in responsibly managing the transition to renewables – a place that includes reducing foreign imports, cleaning up the dirty acts of private mining companies, and putting control back in the hands of local communities. If you're going to phase out an industry, you've got to put something in place to limit the damage.

For evidence, he need point no further than the co-operatively run mine at Tower colliery, where an independently-managed fund ensures that, when the time comes, the opencast site will be carefully regenerated. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the privately-owned operation at Ffos-Y-Fran for certain.

Last year, the Welsh Assembly voted in favour of a moratorium on opencast mining. The government has yet to act, but this may change depending on how the balance of power falls after Thursday's elections. Assembly candidates from both the Green party and Liberal Democrats voiced their support for the UVAG campaigners at a meeting in one of the villages effected by the new pit proposals.

Utlimately, the decline of some of Welsh coal's main customers  the steel works at Port Talbot and the power station at Aberthaw  is likely do more to undermine UK coal than the red lines campaigners draw. But, along the way, new alliances between climate idealists and unions could breathe new life into both movements. In the words of Merthyr Tydfil’s ancient motto: “Nid cadarn ond brodyrdde”  Only brotherhood is strong.


Chris and Alyson, founders of United Valleys Action Group.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.