Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 1 October 2014

These whizz kids get gold even when they're useless

Games for a laugh: G4S’ Nick Buckles explains the Olympics fiasco to a Commons committee

'I hope the next time any of our Assembly politicians consider privatisation, or are tempted to lambast public sector workers, that they remember three simple digits - G4S."

ICTU president Eugene McGlone was quick off the mark on Monday, drawing the obvious lesson from the stumbling and bumbling and fluster and flail of 'the world's leading international security solutions group' as it tried to explain its inability to complete a straightforward task for which it had had seven years to prepare.

Counting the number of workers they'd brought onto the books had bamboozled the company's best brains. Working out where and when they should report for duty scrambled what remained of their minds.

It's been tempting to chortle at the resultant discomfiture of CEO Nick Buckles, being given the runaround by a committee of dull politicians.

But we should remind ourselves, too, that, in spite of it all, Nick is a top man, the sort of star-spangled whizz-kid who has to be paid 24 grand-a-week - up from 17 last year - plus a package entitling him to £21m, at age 51, if he's forced to retire, because otherwise he might flounce off and put his dazzling managerial talents at the disposal of some rival outfit.

Let's be fair. There are different ways of measuring managerial brilliance: bringing in a job well done, on budget and on time. According to that criterion, G4S has utterly failed in its Olympic task and Nick could have no complaints if we paid him in washers.

But from another angle and in broader perspective Nick's salary and trimmings don't look so far out of line.

G4S is the biggest private security firm in the world and, with close on 700,000 staff, the planet's third-largest private-sector employer. In the teeth of a global downturn, it doubled its profits over seven years, to £7.5bn last year.

Almost all of its income comes from public sources. In Britain, the company runs six prisons and three immigration detention centres and is contracted to carry out deportations.

In Lincolnshire, it has just won a £200m contract to take over 'prisoner-handling' and other police functions. It is pitching for a share of a £1.5bn sell-off of police operations in Surrey and the West Midlands. And so on.

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, last year found G4S guards using "extremely offensive racist language" during forced deportations.

Last year also saw 773 complaints, including 48 of assault, against G4S guards at immigration centres. Hardwick expressed concern at "quasi combat-style" G4S uniforms, some identifying wearers as "use of force instructor".

G4S staff are typically paid up to 40% less than regular police and prison officers and enjoy significantly less-favourable conditions. They do the dirty work for governments and do it on the cheap.

The same mindset shaped the Olympic masterplan - no one on pay until the last minute, everyone out the instant the Games close. Even the 700 'managers' were to be on temporary contracts.

Buckles had explained: "The legacy costs of having a workforce laying idle almost does away with the benefits of doing it."

There's the main reason for the no-shows at the main Olympic team hotel in Manchester. It was the greed which had made G4S great that scuppered its hopes of Olympic glory.

Thus, too, the relish of spokespersons for police filling the gaps when they finally had the chance to rubbish the company.

An editorial in the magazine Constabulary - 'written by police for police' - had observed in April: 'The Police Service is beginning to see what this myth of private sector superiority means in practice.'

Editor Gavin Smith asked: "How can it ever ultimately cut costs to introduce private companies whose sole purpose is to make profits for shareholders? If policing and medical care are up for sale, is anything off-limits to market forces?"

The police may be a bit late with their " 'Allo, 'allo, 'allo. What's going on here, then?" routine. But the fact that they are now describing the world the way millions of public sector workers threatened by privatisation have seen it for years is potentially significant in itself.

The sheer uselessness of the private sector when it comes to public projects has been put on spectacular display.

In a logical world it would be months, at least, before any snake-oil salesman for unfettered capitalism ventured onto the airwaves again.

But they will be back, bold as brass and twice as brazen. This time, unlike G4S, we should be ready.

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