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Fighting giants: outsourcing women’s services

Here be monsters

Image credit: Kate Dykes.

Despite public service failures, G4S are still awarded contracts to run services to vulnerable women.

What can we learn about how G4S might run services in the women’s sector by looking at recent cases of outsourcing public services to the private sector?

Jimmy Mubenga died in October 2010 after being illegally restrained by three G4S officers on a flight deporting him to Angola.

Reporting on the case, the Guardian described the “reality of the murky private removals industry”, including the revelation during the inquest that two of the G4S guards’ phones contained ‘extreme racist’ text messages.

We could then turn our attention to how G4S and Serco used taxpayers’ money to monitor dead criminals under contracts for criminal tagging schemes, over-charging the UK government by up to £50 million by billing for offenders who were dead, back in custody or no longer in the UK.

Justice Secretary demanded a forensic of both companies, but while Serco has complied with the audit, G4S refused.

Yes, you read that right. A government representative asked a contractor to comply with an audit on a government contract they’d been caught failing to deliver, and the company refused.

Grayling confirmed to the House of Commons that problems with the contracts had been spotted as early as 2008, but nothing was done.

Again, yes, you read that right.

Both companies have since been referred to the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) for investigation.

We could then look at the Department of Work and Pensions’ (DWP) Work Programme, contracted to firms like A4e.

The Guardian revealed in June that A4e were getting only 3.5% of referrals into long term jobs under the contract.

A4e’s contracts to get people back into work on the government’s behalf are judged to be worth £345 million since 2010.

Private Eye (No. 1344) recently revealed that under the DWP’s Work Programme, “contractors receive around £400 simply for ‘attaching’ an unemployed person to the scheme before even finding them a job. Thus firms have been paid more than £400 million so far for failure.”

Writing in The Independent, Jim Armitage concluded that “The profit motive will always dominate for such service providers.”

It seems he is right, following the announcement from the Criminal Prosecution Service that 9 staff members from A4e are to be charged with over 60 offences committed while running the DWP contract, including “conspiracy to defraud, multiple counts of forgery, and making and possessing articles for use in fraud.”

So why are these private sector giants still getting work at the taxpayers’ expense?

This is a question increasingly being asked of government by small voluntary sector providers, including social enterprise Kazuri, frontline service for victims and survivors of violence Aurora New Dawn, and the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG).

They are joined by independent commentators in Private Eye, Open Democracy and Women’s Views on News; and by a small number of MPs, including Jeremy Corbyn and Keith Vaz.

This growing number of social justice campaigners represent a collective of modern day round-table knights working to take on the corporate dragons of G4S, Serco, and others.

Kazuri’s Farah Damji is leading a call for a public inquiry into the awarding and subsequent monitoring of public service contracts to corporate outsourcing giants.

Damji submitted a Freedom of Information request to NHS England, asking, among other things, what assessment was made of G4S’s capacity, experience and capability of running SARC centres. She believes it is vital to monitor existing contracts run by private sector giants.

“We’re calling into question the mechanism by which contracts of massive scale and value are let by authorities. This is public money and if it was you or I defrauding the public purse in this way, we’d be corresponding with the outside world at Her Majesty’s leisure.

“The Home Office and the Ministry of Justice are as culpable for letting these contracts without suitable precautions in place.”

Speaking in the House of Commons last week, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice Chris Grayling agreed, saying that “…it is not only the behaviour of the suppliers that needs to be examined closely…it is quite clear that the management of these contracts has been wholly inadequate.”

He then placed ‘on hold’ a contract for the management of prisons in Yorkshire, recently awarded to Serco – but announced the successful award of a similar contract in Northumberland to private company Sodexo.

In her investigation into the hundreds of NHS contracts being deliverd by G4S, Caroline Molloy asks:

“Why is the world’s largest private security company, involved in countless cases of human rights abuses both in the UK and internationally, being allowed to make profits from providing healthcare to some of the UK’s most vulnerable children and adults?”

In the meantime, the women’s sector holds its breath and waits to see how the G4S contract to run Sexual Assault Referral Centres might unfold in light of such abuses.

These cases – and others, including allegations of forced evictions of female asylum seekers by G4S staff – perfectly exemplify the troubling trend of awarding public service contracts to private sector providers with no specialist expertise in the service areas they purport to deliver.

G4S senior managers recently admitted that many of their current contracts are ‘loss leaders’, that is contracts they are willing to run at a loss in order to expand their role in UK public services even further

We are left to wonder what advantage, other than low pricing, G4S and other corporate providers can possibly offer.

How can big business compete with the longstanding expertise, commitment and proven track record of service delivery displayed by voluntary sector organisations like Rape Crisis?

Recent G4S advertisements for a SARC manager said that “experience dealing with victims of sexual assault (is) an advantage”.

A similar advertisement for frontline crisis workers providing out-of-hours support to victims of rape and sexual assault offers payment of £12.50 an hour and again, mentions that experience of working with victims of sexual assault would be ‘advantageous’.

Many in the women’s voluntary sector might view it a necessity for a Sexual Assault Referral Centre managers and/or their team to have previous experience of working with victims of sexual assault and rape.

Instead, the growing body of evidence suggests that corporate providers are unable – and unwilling – to prioritise people over profit.

And as the Secretary of State makes a show of wringing his hands over individual contracts, the rest of us are left to wonder how much longer private sector giants will be allowed to profit from vulnerable women.

An earlier version of this article first appeared on Women’s Views on News on 19th July 2013. This is an updated version.

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