Outsourcing corruption and abuse

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G4S and Serco are Britain’s biggest recipients of government outsourcing contracts, worth a total of £1.5bn pa. As the scale of outsourcing grows, so do the scandals. On 9 July, the inquest into the death of Jimmy Mubenga at the hands of G4S security guards delivered a verdict of unlawful killing. On 11 July Justice Secretary Chris Grayling admitted in parliament that an audit had shown G4S and Serco had grossly overcharged for electronic tagging services. On the same day the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee criticised Serco for falsifying its performance figures for its GP out-of-hours service in Cornwall on 252 occasions in six months to hide serious failings. And on 18 July, the Institute for Government think tank reported that outsourcing companies were routinely ‘gaming’ government contracts, distorting provision of services to maximise profits, and said there was ‘a reluctance to penalise companies that under-perform, meaning there are no consequences for failure.’

G4S killed Jimmy Mubenga

Jimmy Mubenga died in October 2010 on board a plane that was due to deport him to Angola after being roughly restrained by G4S guards. The inquest revealed that:

• the senior deportation officer, Stuart Tribelnig, had received just four weeks’ training from G4S before being put in charge of other officers – training that mainly involved learning how to subdue deportees using ‘pain control’;

• guards only received their hourly pay if a deportation went ahead – whatever the state of the deportee;

• racist texts were routinely circulated between guards.

Returning the verdict of unlawful killing, the jury foreman said:

‘We find that Mr Mubenga was pushed or held down by one or more of the guards, causing his breathing to be impeded. We find that they were using unreasonable force and acting in an unlawful manner. The fact that Mr Mubenga was pushed or held down, or a combination of the two, was a significant ... cause of death. The guards, we believe, would have known that they would have caused Mr Mubenga harm in their actions, if not serious harm.’

Twenty-one witnesses told the court that they heard Mubenga calling out that he couldn’t breathe and that the guards were killing him. The Crown Prosecution Service will now reconsider its decision not to prosecute the guards involved.

The director responsible for the G4S contract at the time of Mubenga’s death, Stephen Small, gave testimony to the Parliamentary Home Affairs Committee at the time about the company’s restraint techniques that a whistle-blower later showed to be false. Small was promoted and is in charge of a £30m contract to house asylum seekers in the North East, in conditions so bad that it has prompted a special hearing of the Parliamentary Home Affairs Committee. The committee also summoned Serco because it delivers the asylum housing contract for the North West. Serco’s Jeremy Stafford told the committee that Serco was prepared to accept low profit margins for these contracts in order to gain a foothold in the international accommodation sector. He explained that Serco is ‘very focused on building an accommodation business ... we felt that we could establish a very good platform that we felt was scalable ... some of the services that we develop in the United Kingdom we then go and take to other geographies.’

Sticky fingers

G4S and Serco are now subject to a fraud inquiry, after an audit revealed they had overcharged for electronic tagging contracts by tens of millions of pounds since 2005. Grayling told parliament this ‘included charges for people who were back in prison and had had their tags removed, people who had left the country, and those who had never been tagged in the first place but who had instead been returned to court. There are a small number of cases where charging continued for a period when the subject was known to have died.’ And this is not all, ‘It might even date back as far as the previous contracts let in 1999.’ While Serco has agreed to cooperate with a forensic audit, G4S has refused and will be investigated by the Serious Fraud Office.

The government wants to rely on further outsourcing to expand electronic tagging from around 30,000 people to as many as 100,000. It is also privatising 80% of the probation service, outsourcing much of the court service and changing the legal aid system to replace local solicitors with companies like G4S, supermarket Tesco and haulage giant Eddie Stobart. The purpose is not to save money or provide better services, but to build up multinationals that can compete for service contracts on the global stage. It must be resisted.

Thomas Vincent

Thanks to Our Kingdom (www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom) for much of the information for this article.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 234 August/September 2013