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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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