Clare Sambrook asks: What now for the world’s biggest security company?
Earlier this summer, G4S, the world’s leading security company, famously failed to provide a workforce fit to guard the London Olympics, prompting the unexpected deployment of thousands of troops and police officers.
The eleventh hour unravelling of security for the world’s biggest sporting event provoked intense media interest, dominating national news reporting, and hit headlines worldwide.
The company’s chief executive, Nick Buckles, called before the Parliamentary Home Affairs Committee, became a household name and laughing stock, the size of his remuneration – more than £5 million last year alone – eliciting surprise.
There was incomprehension that, despite taking close to £300 million of public money, G4S had failed to recruit, train and deliver the workforce it had promised. What’s more, executives had delayed owning up to the disaster until it was too late to set things right without wrenching soldiers away from leave with their families.
Greed, incompetence and denial were seasoned with the chief executive’s apparent nonchalance about the scale and consequences of his company’s failure. MPs expressed astonishment that, regardless of its demonstrable failure to manage, G4S proposed to pocket a £57 million management fee.
Cash losses and fatalities
Far from being a summer storm passing briefly over London, G4S’s spectacular undoing has had deep and wide-ranging resonance at home and abroad, not least in promoting public awareness and curiosity about this vast international corporation and its creeping takeover of UK public services.
G4S employs 657,000 people in 125 countries. Yes, 125 countries! The company’s roots are in the tough, sometimes dangerous, world of cash and property guarding. Last year, 76 employees were killed in the course of their work, the majority in Africa, the Middle East and Asia; 28 workers died ‘under attack’.
Company employees protect oil, gas and mining companies all over the world. They have served the Israeli prisons service and businesses in the Occupied Territories. For G4S, the Arab Spring’s popular uprisings seemed more about business opportunity than democracy. Executives told investors last year that civil unrest had sparked rising demand for private security services. In Egypt and Bahrain, G4S gained ‘visibility among government heads of security’ and ‘built the brand’. In Saudi Arabia, the company’s support for the regime during popular protests earned local staff, by royal decree, a two-month bonus.
Friends in high places
Here in the UK, where G4S is based, the company is a leading beneficiary of outsourcing – the transfer of government functions and service provision to the private sector. Its success is helped by an ability to nurture cosy relationships with ministers and civil servants.
The revolving door between public service and G4S has been spinning fast for more than a decade, with civil service procurement people especially welcome. The company’s trophy recruit is John Reid, now a G4S director, put on the company payroll in 2008 when he was still an MP after a ministerial career that included the Home Office, the departments of Transport and Health, and the Ministry of Defence. He was the secretary of state for Scotland and later Northern Ireland.
This year alone G4S will take more than £1 billion of UK taxpayers’ money from reliable long-term contracts with the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice, the Department of Work and Pensions and local Police Authorities.
UK prisons, child jails and detention centres
The company builds and runs UK prisons, runs child jails and children’s homes, monitors 12,000 tagged offenders, employs probation officers, trains magistrates and reclassifies benefits claimants.
Dominating UK ‘asylum markets’, G4S manages immigration detention centres, providing healthcare and social workers within the ‘detention estate’. Against no competition, and despite a concern over its record of rough handling of immigration detainees, G4S has trained 7,800 UK Border Agency staff in ‘Keeping Children Safe’. Earlier this year the company, whose reputation is poor among asylum seekers, started managing housing for asylum seekers as part of a seven-year UK Border Agency contract valued at £211 million.
In Lincolnshire, thanks to the widest-ranging police outsourcing deal yet, G4S is running custody suites, taking emergency and routine calls, in charge of firearms licensing and protecting the courts. G4S has been commissioned to build and run Britain’s first for-profit police station. It stamps its corporate logo on police staff uniforms.
The bottom line
‘We want to be recognised as the global leader in providing secure outsourcing solutions,’ Nick Buckles told investors weeks ahead of his Olympic fall. ‘It was security solutions, it’s now very much focused on outsourcing as a vision.’
But G4S’s Olympic disaster, relying as it did on public servants – soldiers and police officers – to come to the rescue, questioned the value of outsourcing. Simon Reed, vice chairman of the Police Federation (the police staff association) said: ‘The bottom line is that the priority for private companies will always be shareholders and profit margins. That is why we have voiced real concerns about the future negative impact on public safety if the government’s drive to privatise mass swathes of policing comes to fruition.’
He went on: ‘It is very clear that these private contracts are built upon an expectation that the public sector will step in to pick up the pieces if private industry fails to deliver.’
Behind the corporate mask
Before the Olympics, the media showed little curiosity about who was taking over UK public services. Yet G4S already had a record of dangerous neglect.
Fifteen-year-old Gareth Myatt died in April 2004 under ‘restraint’ by G4S staff at Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre near Rugby. There had, for years, been concerns about staff bullies and restraint techniques that caused ‘positional asphyxia’. The jury into the death of Gareth Myatt returned a verdict of accidental death but found that he might still have been alive if there had been adequate safety checks into the types of restraints staff were being trained to use on the children in their care.
Aboriginal leader Mr Ward was cooked to death in a badly maintained G4S van being driven across Western Australia’s scorching goldfields by G4S staff in January 2008. In the Kalgoorlie Magistrates Court last August, G4S was fined A$285,000 after pleading guilty for failing to ensure Mr Ward’s health and safety.
On a British Airways plane at Heathrow Airport in October 2010, Angolan asylum seeker Jimmy Mubenga died under ‘restraint’ by G4S guards contracted to the UK Border Agency. ‘Positional asphyxia’ again.
Doctors and lawyers had for years spoken out about abuse, assault and dangerous restraint techniques used by G4S and other commercial escorts. A chilling dossier of evidence entitled Outsourcing Abuse was published by Medical Justice in 2008. Border Agency chief executive Lin Homer dismissed the evidence and said the doctors and lawyers were ‘seeking to damage the reputation of our contractors’. Such complacency is perhaps less likely now.
Jimmy Mubenga was the first person to die during the immigration removal process since Joy Gardner seventeen years previously, and the circumstances of his death were swiftly published by The Guardian, exposing the official lie that he had spontaneously fallen ill. Yet the BBC’s national news service failed to cover the story for days.
G4S’s plan, outlined in a briefing to investors this past May, had been for Olympic success to showcase its talents, drawing prestige international events to sign up for its services, opening doors to domestic markets worldwide.
Instead, the company’s Olympic legacy has fired media interest, and encouraged campaigners, Quakers among them, working to defend and promote human rights. The issues range from disability rights to the plight of the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories; they include asylum seeker housing, conditions for young offenders, welfare ‘reform’…
Privatisation of police
Earlier this month citizens opposing the privatisation of West Midlands Police asked the Police Authority whether companies bidding for the contract had owned up, as required, to findings of ‘grave misconduct’ against them. Had G4S declared the Kalgoorlie verdict? And, if they hadn’t, what would the Police Authority do about it?
West Midlands Police Authority chairman, Derek Webley, replied that G4S hadn’t. He said G4S in Australia was ‘not the same entity as the company bidding in respect of business partnering.’ (That’s the official name for police privatisation.) In Derek Webley’s opinion, G4S in Australia operated ‘in a different jurisdiction with different national laws’, so, ‘there are no grounds to exclude G4S from bidding.’
But that is not the end of it. The firm Public Interest Lawyers have submitted a letter-before-claim threatening the West Midlands Police Authority with legal action over whether it had properly considered concerns about preferred bidders’ involvement in acts of grave misconduct.
‘There is already a fragile relationship between the police and the community,’ said complainant Robina Khan. ‘Introducing private companies into policing activities will only weaken this trust further. Looking at what companies like… G4S are doing in other countries, it is only right that we question their human rights records, particularly when they stand to benefit from taxpayers’ money.’
G4S’s post-Olympic notoriety gave edge to a vigorous House of Lords debate on the UK Border Agency and its commercial contractors this past July.
There was some criticism relating to G4S. Former chief inspector of prisons, crossbench peer David Ramsbotham, criticised the Crown Prosecution Service’s ‘perverse’ decision not to prosecute G4S over Jimmy Mubenga’s death.
Liberal Democrat peer John Alderdice, a consultant psychiatrist by profession, called the Border Agency culture ‘abusive’, and said: ‘The UK Border Agency has not just employed G4S; it has become like G4S.’
Conservative peer Mark Schreiber insisted: ‘there must be no question of hiving off’ further Border Agency activities to the private sector. ‘We have already seen enough disasters on that side already.’
Clare Sambrook won the 2010 Paul Foot Award and Bevins Prize for Outstanding Investigative Reporting for work on the UK government’s child immigration detention policy and its commercial contractors including G4S.
She is co-editor of OurKingdom, the UK arm of openDemocracy.org
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