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.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear