“Duty of care” vs “earnings per share”: private contractors in the UK immigration removals business

Private contractors are “out of control” and Amnesty International calls for a complete overhaul of UK immigration removals

“We have always operated to the highest possible standards of safety and welfare for those people in our care,” said G4S, the security giant in whose care Jimmy Mubenga died after “restraint”, Aboriginal elder Mr Ward was slowly cooked to death, and a five-year-old (unlawfully detained) was frisked by a latex-gloved employee saying: “You’re a big boy now, so I have to search you”.

G4S (slogan— Securing Your World) was responding to an Amnesty International briefing paper, “Out Of Control: The case for a complete overhaul of enforced removals by private contractors”. 

The report, published today and reported in the Guardian, is not happy reading: 

There’s “Carpet Karaoke”. . . “so named, because it involved forcing an individual’s face down towards the carpet with such force that they were only able to scream inarticulately like a bad karaoke singer.”

There’s G4S whistleblowers persistently warning — well before Jimmy Mubenga’s death — that “potentially lethal force” was being used during removals. 

There’s broken arms, cut lips, a contractor’s knee forced into a deportee’s chest, and a Virgin Atlantic passenger — a London University student — questioned for hours under anti-terrorism legislation after speaking out in defence of a screaming deportee being violently restrained on the plane. 

Amnesty tracks a pattern of improper treatment going back years.

“Sources with direct working experience of enforced removals have told Amnesty about serious failings in the training of private contractors conducting forced removals,” says the briefing. “Staff are trained in control and restraint techniques that are unsuitable for use on aircraft; there is no mandatory training in the safe use of handcuffs and restraints; and there is no watertight system in place to ensure that those accredited to conduct removals have received the required level of training. The reportedly widespread use of sub-contractors to fill staff shortages also raises further serious concerns about training and accountability.”

According to Amnesty: “Rigid bar handcuffs were routinely used by escorting staff not trained in their use . . . the misuse of rigid bar handcuffs in aircraft seats dramatically increases the risk of positional asphyxia in cases when a person’s arms and legs are tightly restrained by over-tightening seat-belts and the head is forced down, pushing handcuffs tightly into the abdomen, a life threatening technique that witnesses told us were routinely used during removals.”

In all Amnesty’s cases, G4S investigated itself (overseen by the UK Border Agency who had awarded the contract). No complaints were upheld.

Amnesty’s report reinforces the case for ending the practice of contracting-out difficult work involving vulnerable people to profit-driven private contractors for whom “duty of care” is an inscrutable concept, quite detached from the real job of delivering shareholder value. 

“A complete and radical overhaul and reform of the current system is now required to enable the UK Government to meet its legal obligations to protect people against human rights abuses,” says Amnesty. “Reforms must drastically improve the training, monitoring, accountability, and techniques employed during enforced removals.”

Amnesty adds: “Given long-standing concerns over the accountability and conduct of private security companies, the Government should review experience in other EU countries, most notably in Germany, where the state uses its own law enforcement personnel to undertake enforced returns.” 

Jimmy Mubenga’s widow, Adrienne Makenda Kambana, writing in the Guardian, welcomed Amnesty’s call: “What I now know is that while Jimmy is the first person to die during a forced removal since Joy Gardner back in 1993, there have been many, many reports of mistreatment by these private contractors during removals. There were a number of cases detailed in the report but one stuck out: a refused asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who said he struggled to breathe and feared he was going to die when security staff put a knee on his chest and sat on him, when he resisted his removal at Heathrow.”

She added: “Nothing can bring my husband back now, but the system must change to stop this happening again. I hope no one else has to go through the pain and loss that my family and I have endured.”

In another world, with a different scale of values, former Home Secretary Lord Reid is now a G4S director. (He was on the payroll at £50,000-a-year while he was still an MP). G4S chief executive Nick Buckles, who reckons “the proof of the pudding is that we've been through our business plan process”, gets a base salary of £800,000-a-year. Then, there’s his performance-related bonus of up to 150 per cent of that. Plus payment in shares (assuming targets are met) to the value of twice his annual salary again. Plus (I am not making this up — it’s in the Annual Report) there’s his £7 million pension pot, growing by the year. Plus, on top of all that, he has an unspecified interest in £14 million of shares in the G4S Employee Benefit Trust. And his personal stack of shares, at today’s market price, is worth £5.9 million. 

A secure world indeed.

About the author

Clare Sambrook, novelist and journalist. Co-editor of OurKingdom and co-founder of End Child Detention Now. Winner of Paul Foot Award and Bevins Prize for outstanding investigative journalism in 2010. Orwell Prize nominee in 2013.