Another G4S scandal: UK's privatised asylum housing market is falling apart

The sensitive work of housing vulnerable asylum seekers appears to be defeating the world’s biggest security company. A leaked letter from G4S director (a former Rentokil executive) illuminates the unfolding crisis.

Last year G4S won part of a £620 million government contract to house asylum seekers. It subcontracts the work to smaller companies which have repeatedly failed to provide housing fit for human habitation and whose staff have been accused of harassing vulnerable tenants. A recent Parliamentary inquiry into aspects of asylum policy made searing criticism of housing contractors. The scandal has been exposed by grassroots activists giving voice to asylum seekers’ experience, forcing G4S to take action against its subcontractors.

Amid speculation that the entire project is falling apart, there came to light yesterday a leaked G4S letter dated 25 February in which Stephen Small, the executive in charge of the contract, told stakeholders: “There have been a number of rumours circulating about our Accommodation Partners and I wanted to set the record straight.”

He went on: “It has become increasingly evident over the past few months that a number of our Accommodation Partners are finding it difficult to manage aspects of this contract.” Those difficult aspects are in fact fundamental parts of the job: “their ability to address the high number of property defects” and “issues with pastoral care offered to Service Users".

Small confirmed that one subcontractor, the property development company Mantel, had resigned from the West Midlands contract on 30 January “as they are finding it more and more difficult to deliver the service required on this contract”.

In a tone reminiscent of the company's response to its Olympic fiasco, Small said: “What it does not mean is that G4S is willing to give up on COMPASS.” (That’s the acronym for the Home Office’s Commercial and Operational Managers Procuring Asylum Support Services; the emphasis is Small’s). He went on: “We have signed a contract with the Home Office and are committed to delivering the COMPASS services in our two regions for the next 5+2 years and we have no intention of reneging on this. Any rumours to the contrary are false.”

Two other subcontractors, Live and Cascade, "have also expressed similar concerns to Mantel," he said, "but importantly have not offered their notice on the contract.” So, the good news is that two underperforming subcontractors have not given up completely yet. Live, Mantel and Cascade were all described by G4S as “experienced suppliers of housing provision and pastoral care services” when G4S dropped another subcontractor UPM “owing to contractual issues” last year.

Small said G4S was supporting Live and Cascade “to help them focus on their critical business activities”, and was setting up a “Project Board to look at our business model in order to support our Accommodation Partners in providing a more effective service".

Besides providing some insight into the parlous state of G4S’s management of asylum seeker housing, the letter reveals something of Stephen Small.

In a suggestion of the sensitivity, skill-set, and ethos thought suitable for this kind of work, Small came to G4S direct from Rentokil, the UK’s “leading provider of pest control, woodworm and damp proofing treatment”. He was Rentokil’s operations director, responsible for sales and service across the UK. His Linkedin profile describes him as “Dynamic and energetic business leader delivering strategic direction, change management and turnaround experience.”

On joining G4S as Managing Director of G4S Detention and Escorting in January 2010, Small said: “I am excited with this opportunity to lead a D&E business that has a wealth of experience across the whole team. It is this experience that places us in an ideal position to expand our service offering to the Government. My aim is to ensure that we continually improve our processes and service delivery that underpins the value we deliver."

Before 2010 was over, he would find himself called before a Parliamentary committee after the violent death of a detainee.

Many people saw trouble coming. In March, the government published Baroness Nuala O’Loan’s independent report on immigration detainees’ complaints of excessive force by commercial escorters including G4S. The complaints had been documented in the Medical Justice report Outsourcing Abuse in 2008. O’Loan found that there was “inadequate management of the use of force by the private sector companies” and made 22 recommendations for change. The Home Office’s memorable response was to castigate the doctors and lawyers who had brought the allegations to light, accusing them of "seeking to damage the reputation of our contractors".

Within months, in October 2010, on a BA plane, Jimmy Mubenga died during a form of “restraint” by G4S employees exposed as dangerous in Outsourcing Abuse. Only The Guardian’s digging revealed the truth about Mubenga’s death; G4S had claimed that he just “became unwell”. Within days, G4S whistleblowers told the Parliamentary Home Affairs Committtee that a banned restraint technique referred to within the company as ‘carpet karaoke’ continued to be used in immigration removals. This technique involves the forceful holding down of a person’s head between their legs. 

Twenty days after Jimmy Mubenga’s death, Stephen Small was called before the Home Affairs Select Committee with his boss David Banks. They denied that such techniques were used by G4S. And they denied the whistleblowers' claims that staff were offered financial incentives for successful removals. Stephen Small claimed: “There is no training in pushing the head downwards. There is training in trying to keep the deportee upwards. There’s no neck holds or head holds used.” (The transcript from 2 November 2010 can be found here; video here.)

Home Affairs Committee member Dr Julian Huppert told the G4S executives: “I am concerned that there is one picture that is being presented by you, and it may well be what you see, which is things as they ought to be, and there is a different picture as to what is actually going on. I am concerned about that gap.”

In the aftermath of Jimmy Mubenga’s death, G4S lost its Home Office escorting contract. But then it won the asylum housing business.

Activist researcher John Grayson, who has personally supported tenants who find themselves victims of abuse, has charted the progress of the asylum housing story on OurKingdom from the point of view of the dispossessed. Commenting yesterday, Grayson said: “Campaigners have systematically exposed those failures covered in the Small letter. Campaigns by asylum rights groups and women asylum seekers supported by Leeds City Council succeeded in getting Cascade suspended from the contract over the last three months throughout West Yorkshire because of the disgusting properties allocated to asylum seekers in Leeds. We forced Cascade off the contract, just as back in June we made G4S dump UPM, then its main subcontractor.”

He went on: “G4S is one of the companies responsible for what shadow minister of Immigration Chris Bryant described as ‘hideous conditions’ in asylum housing. G4S subcontractors have been exposed meting out punishment by harassing women who speak out against these conditions. Landlords abusing and punishing their tenants is not ‘pastoral care’, Mr Small.”

And so, a duty of care to those desperately in need who have come to our shores for sanctuary from fear and oppression is contracted out to a private provider rather than being delivered by a public service. In order to profit from this the provider sub-contracts to smaller companies with competitive tendering which cannot but force down what is spent on 'delivery' of the service. The service being delivered is not something supplied to the buyer for their use. It is the very duty and care that we as a society have taken on, based on our humanitarian principles. Of course, we must ensure these principles are not abused. But this way of reducing costs seems to ensure that people are abused, by those contracted and subcontracted to care for them on our behalf.

 

 


 

Notes

A report by the charity Inquest was helpful in the preparation of this article: Briefing on the death of Jimmy Mubenga. The restraint-related death of Jimmy Mubenga during deportation by a private security firm: the call for a parliamentary inquiry and scrutiny by human rights mechanisms April 2011 PDF

The cross party Parliamentary Inquiry into Asylum Support for Children and Young People, published its report (summary, full text) in January 2013. The panel, chaired by former children’s minister Sarah Teather MP comprised Neil Carmichael MP, Caroline Dinenage MP, Nic Dakin MP, Virendra Sharma MP, Lord Avebury, Baroness Lister, the Rt. Reverend John Packer, Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, Nadine Finch, Children’s Rights Barrister, Garden Court Chambers and Matthew Reed, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society.