G4S loses contract. Handing prisons to any commercial contractor is a grave mistake

The big news story is that G4S, the shambolic security company that botched the London Olympics, has today lost a major prison contract (HMP Wolds, in Lincolnshire), and failed to win any new ones. A hard blow for G4S and its shareholders. The bigger issue is that the UK government continues to privatise prisons, and commercial confidentiality shields the process from public view and democratic accountability.

Last summer the Ministry of Justice opened a competition for contracts to run eight prisons in England and Wales. Today the Secretary of State for Justice announced that four of these prisons are to remain in the public sector and four will be privatised.

The Howard League campaigns against prison privatisation and today we welcome the announcement that Wolds, Coldingley, Durham and Onley prisons will remain in the public sector.

But the story that is grabbing headlines is that G4S, the international security firm that oversaw the Olympics security fiasco, has not only failed to win any of the contracts it was bidding for, but has also lost the contract to run HMP Wolds. The prison, which was criticised as having “clear weaknesses” by the Chief Inspector of Prisons this summer, will move to public sector management next July. 

Sources in the Ministry of Justice claim the decision not to hand any of the contracts to G4S is unrelated to the Olympics. It is difficult to believe that the potential PR problems associated with awarding prison contracts to G4S so soon after this summer’s shambolic handling of Olympic security has not played a part in this announcement, particularly as the announcement was originally due in the summer when the security debacle was at its height.

The Howard League is attempting to force officials to release more detailed information about the decision making process in an effort to break through the secrecy surrounding the competition for contracts. Commercial confidentiality means we are unlikely to be successful. Yet the West Coast Mainline re-franchising shows that Whitehall decisions on privatisation can be profoundly flawed. Unfortunately public sector prisons do not have the option, like Virgin Trains, of challenging decisions in the courts. 

While the Ministry of Justice appears to be slowing the pace of prison privatisation, the government has announced that it will put out to tender ancillary services in all prisons, such as maintenance services and resettlement provision. This is being done in a bid to make £450 million savings over the next six years.

If the government is intending to move to a French model, where custody itself is run by the state but ancillary services are outsourced, then this would at least address concerns of principle that the delivery of punishment itself should not be done for profit. Yet there would remain very relevant concerns about the practical effect if outsourcing means a lower quality of service in areas as important as resettlement. The Howard League would also hope that outsourcing services will not extend to NHS provision of healthcare in prisons, which is vital for continuity of care between custody and the community.

It is good news that half of the prisons up for grabs are to remain in the public sector but worrying that there will soon be another four prisons in England and Wales run for profit. A Populus poll in July this year showed that more than half of the public are uncomfortable with privately run prisons and yet politicians continue to award lucrative prison contracts to multi-national companies. (See page 13 here). It is time politicians started to listen to the public on this issue and think again about allowing companies to profit from punishment.