Duty of Care: beyond the case of Mr Ward, cooked to death by gigantic outsourcer G4S

The horrible death of a respected Aboriginal elder casts doubt upon often-unchallenged assumptions about the virtues of privatisation.

Last week in Western Australia, Graham Powell and Nina Stokoe, two former private security guards, pleaded not guilty to charges relating to the death of renowned Aboriginal elder Mr Ward, cooked to death while being transported more than 220 miles across searing Goldfields in a badly maintained van with faulty air conditioning in January 2008.

Powell and Stokoe’s employer, then called GSL, is part of G4S, the outsourcing monster with a £7.4 billion annual turnover, which dominates the world security market. The UK is the company’s home and a £1.2 billion chunk of business: G4S manages PFI deals, transports half a million prisoners a year, runs prisons and immigration detention centres (including, opening soon, the government’s new 'I can’t believe it’s not child detention' facility at Pease Pottage near Gatwick). To G4S, our welfare state is a £159 billion opportunity-in-waiting, the dismantling of the NHS another exciting prospect for growth and enrichment. 


G4S CEO Nick Buckles

G4S, which may yet face corporate manslaughter charges here in the UK over last year’s death of Angolan deportee Jimmy Mubenga after “restraint” by G4S operatives, has repeatedly tried to pin the blame for Mr Ward’s death on Powell and Stokoe alone. After the Western Australia State Coroner found in June 2009 that the State, the company and the workers had all contributed to Mr Ward’s death, Tim Hall, G4S’s mouthpiece in Australia, insisted on national television that the company’s procedures “were not totally inadequate. Why this incident happened was because two officers disobeyed an instruction they were given to stop every two hours.”

But that isn’t anything like the whole story. Indeed the case of Mr Ward provides a shocking glimpse behind the corporate spin, exposing shakiness in the logic that has propelled the global boom in privatisation of core public services.

Mr Ward’s final journey

Mr Ward was 46 years old when he was taken from his desert home-town of Laverton to the larger Outback city of Kalgoorlie to face a drink driving charge. He was a respected Aboriginal elder (his full name, for cultural reasons, may not be used), who had represented the Ngaanyatjarra lands within Australia and internationally. GSL’s Nina Stokoe described him to the Inquest as “a man in his 40's, 50's, Aboriginal with a dark skin. He was dirty.”

After three and three quarter hours in the Mazda van’s rear metal security “pod” with slippery metal seating (facing sideways), and no air conditioning, on a day when outside temperatures soared to 40 degrees centigrade, Mr Ward died of heatstroke. He had third degree burns, most likely from contact with the searing metal floor of the van.

“It is clear that the deceased suffered a terrible death while in custody which was wholly unnecessary and avoidable,” said State Coroner Alastair Hope.

A temperature monitor might have alerted Powell and Stokoe to Mr Ward’s ordeal, but there wasn’t one. The CCTV didn’t work properly, it hadn’t worked for a long time, and this was known to company staff. A “virtually useless” panic button was not marked in any way (even the police forensic officers couldn’t find it), leaving Mr Ward no means to communicate his distress to the drivers’ cab, to Graham Powell and Nina Stokoe who was anyway listening to her IPOD.

The company, said the Coroner, had “no written policies” requiring “reasonably regular physical checks” on prisoners’ welfare. Staff testified that “they had never been told to check the air conditioning”. Indeed, GSL’s pre-trip checklist included no provision to note whether the air conditioning was working or not.

The ten or so security and prisoner transport staff based at GSL’s Kalgoorlie office “had no prior security or custodial experience”, said Mr Hope. Their training, such as it was, had involved reading and being tested on what they’d read, and, “the only practical training which they had received was in the use of restraints and the use of force.”

Staff knew the Mazda van was unreliable, but Stokoe testified that if she and Powell had refused the job the supervisor would have given it to someone else. The Coroner noted that it was a Sunday and Stokoe was “a casual employee who would be paid double time for the trip and she had never ‘knocked back’ any jobs offered to her as she believed that if she did so she might not get any further work.”

Since Mr Ward was known to be “no trouble” and “very compliant”, he might have been placed in the forward secure pod with padded seats and windows that could be opened when the air conditioning failed. But he wasn’t, said the Coroner, due to “an arbitrary and inflexible rule of the company that all male remand prisoners taken from police lockups were to be regarded as ‘high risk’.”

Staff told the Coroner that GSL provided no water for prisoners; workers could buy it and later recoup their money, but: “All staff said they did not bother doing this, as it was a cumbersome process.” For the trip, Mr Ward had a single 600ml bottle of water.

Regarding the fog around commercial outsourcing deals the Coroner said: “Precisely how the various proprietary companies interacted was not evident at the Inquest and it appears was not known to the Department’s representative . . . This case has highlighted some of the dangers associated with the privatisation of services when the state owes a non-delegable duty of care.”

The Coroner said: “Any reasonably compassionate person who viewed the prisoner pod in which the deceased was transported would be shocked.”

Alarm bells ringing for years

In fact a reasonably compassionate person called Richard Harding, Western Australia’s Inspector of Custodial Services, had viewed an identical Mazda pod more than seven years previously, and had published his misgivings in November 2001 in “Report of an Announced Inspection of Adult Prisoner Transport Services” under the prescient heading: “ALARM BELLS RINGING”.

“The locked compartment contained two inward-facing metal benches with no restraints or grab handles to prevent passengers from sliding around as the vehicle braked,” reported Harding. “There was no natural airflow and very little natural light, for the back window was very closely grilled. The compartment was claustrophobic and cramped.”

About the fleet that G4S was to inherit, a prison administrator told Harding: “The vehicles are not fit for humans to be transported in. We are just waiting for a death to happen.”

Harding opined that the benefits of contracting out had been tangible: “the scope and extent of service needs have become more visible,” he said. “Personnel, particularly police, have indeed been freed up to perform their core functions; a single provider has been able to integrate the service to a marked degree; and, for all its complexities, accountability has been very much enhanced.”

But, he said, in a paragraph that might usefully be Sellotaped to the foreheads of ministerial aides worldwide: “the hazards have to this point offset those benefits. Divided responsibilities have enabled questions of passenger safety, dignity and reasonable comfort to be evaded. The Department and the Contractor have focused on commercial issues and have reached such a stage of mutual disillusionment that service quality is at risk, and neither party has monitored service quality in an appropriate way.”

If anyone in Australia’s security industry had been deaf to Harding’s alarm bells in 2001, perhaps they heard the howling sirens from the 2005 “Review of Victorian Prisoner Transport” by the State’s Corrections Inspectorate, which found deficiencies in GSL’s performance including, “incomplete staff refresher training, poor record keeping, no regular reviews or updating of emergency management procedures, little adherence to servicing and maintenance. . .high breakdown levels of electronic surveillance equipment. . .compounded by poor quality vision, broken lights and ‘blind spots’, inoperative communications equipment which prevent prisoners from speaking with the driver and an inadequate emergency duress monitoring system.”

And there was more. A federal government inquiry — known as the Hamburger Report — recorded in 2005 that GSL staff transferring five immigration detainees to the Baxter detention centre in South Australia the previous year failed to provide medical treatment for detainees “upon whom force had been used and who may have been injured”, failed to provide “basic amenities including food and fluids”. The detainees had suffered “sensory deprivation”, they were denied rest and exercise and their obvious distress and cries for help met with “disregard”. Denied access to toilet facilities, they’d had to urinate on the floor in front of one another.

Richard Harding, WA’s Inspector of Custodial Services, tried again to raise the alarm just months before Mr Ward’s death, urging yet again, in May 2007, the provision of food and water on long journeys, that “seat belts be fitted for all passengers,” that “passenger seats to be preferably forward, or rear-facing, never sideways”. 

Harding noted that the then Western Australia provider, AIMS, wanted to novate (in effect hand over) its contract — with a year still to run— to GSL. He opposed this “uncontested arrangement” which “raises risks” and “would stifle competiton”. The handover happened anyway, and GSL inherited AIMS’s dangerous vehicles, ill-trained staff and shoddy practices.

“Government departments on the whole are not adept at contract management,” said Harding, “and our various reviews . . . have shown that the Department of Corrective Services is no exception.”

The alarm bells were getting louder. In July 2007 the Victorian Police Ombudsman reiterated concerns about GSL published two years previously by the State’s Corrections Inspectorate. Workers at a youth detention centre had complained about “the poor state of health of young detainees” arriving with GSL. Food, water, toilet stops were still an issue. GSL told the Ombudsman it assumed that prisoners had “had a meal prior to departure, or will receive a meal at the destination”. They were wrong about that. GSL said it did not give prisoners plastic water bottles in case they used them as weapons.

In the aftermath of the Ward Inquest ABC Television interviewed Keith Hamburger, who had exposed GSL’s abuse of immigration detainees four years previously. ABC asked Hamburger, a career public servant who had held senior positions including Director General of Corrective Services in Queensland: “Does it surprise you that these issues are still current years after you've written your report?”

“That's a matter of great concern,” said Hamburger, “because this is not rocket science, we're dealing here with duty of care.” 

The pressure of competition

In May 2009, G4S, describing itself as “a successful and experienced player in the Australian prison management industry”, made a submission to New Zealand's Parliament backing a pro-privatisation bill.

It was sixteen months after Mr Ward’s death and G4S trumpeted its “well established risk management and compliance framework”, explaining it in a remarkable way: “Risk is identified, assessed and monitored through a risk management matrix and is managed through a continuous and proactive risk-based operational audit compliance programe that is both internal and external.”

All clear?

The company recycled some of privatisation’s commonly claimed and frequently unchallenged virtues, including this one: “The pressure of competition is a powerful incentive for tenderers to think of innovative ways of doing things.”

In the real world sometimes the “pressure of competition” is nowhere near as powerful as privatisation’s beneficiaries would have us believe. Take one eyepopping chapter in the history of G4S, formed by the merger of Group 4 and Securicor seven years ago . . .

GSL had been a Group 4 subsidiary but in June 2004, just ahead of the merger, Group 4 sold GSL to two private equity firms. G4S chief executive Nick Buckles later told the Financial Times that the deal was struck “to ease the progress of the merger as there would otherwise have been competition issues over prisoner transportation.” Just three years after the sale — Abracadabra! — G4S bought GSL back from the private equity people. It would “slot neatly into the next stage of G4S’s strategy to focus on long-term government contracts,” Buckles told the FT.

Almost two years after Mr Ward’s death, and against no competition (due to “human error” the tender was not advertised) — G4S was reappointed the State of Victoria’s prisoner transport contractor.

Impressing the investors

Thousands of miles away from scorchingly hot Kalgoorie, here in the UK G4S executives briefed financial analysts the other day. There was a slide show — “Core values: Customer Focus, Expertise . . . Integrity (We can always be trusted to do the right thing)”. Director David Taylor-Smith ran through the company’s UK business, £1.2 billion of it, £700 million with government — the UK Border Agency, the Ministry of Justice, the National Offender Management Service. (Only yesterday morning G4S corporate development director Peter Neden sat in committee room 6 at the Palace of Westminster, arguing the case for “reform” of the probation services.)

“We’re now bigger than the Scottish Prison Service and Northern Ireland Prison Service combined,” said Taylor-Smith. “So we’re starting to get proper scale now in the UK as a kind of a credible alternative to national bodies running prisons.”

There’d been major wins in providing “facilities management” for NHS hospitals: "we do 13 acute hospitals now. So that’s great.” 

About Welfare to Work (“when that’s clocked in next year that will be £130 million”), Taylor-Smith joked: “I’m just reminding those taxpayers, if there are British taxpayers in this room, £159 billion spent in this area of government.” G4S will be paid by results, managing subcontractors getting long term unemployed people back into work (or at any rate off the state’s books).

“We see this as providing significant additional growth opportunities,” said Taylor-Smith, confiding: “Two nights ago I was with [government ministers] Iain Duncan Smith, Oliver Letwin, Crispin Blunt and they’re talking now also applying this into the prisons programmes, into drug programmes and also benefit fraud.”

(It pays to get friendly with G4S. Former Labour Home Secretary John Reid was trousering G4S fees of £50,000 a year even before he’d left Parliament. Now Lord Reid is a G4S director.)

The analysts asked about Australia. The year after Mr Ward’s death G4S lost its contract to run Australia’s refugee detention network and last month it lost the Western Australia court security and custodial contract as well (both pieces of business picked up by Serco).

Nick Buckles, who is paid £27,000-a-week, said of the Australian market: “We haven't had a good run recently on care and justice because of a major incident that happened about three years ago.”

But, looking on the bright side, he said: “there is only two or three major players, typically sometimes only two people bidding for care and justice. And with . . . our global expertise, in time we will become a winner in that market because there's a lot of outsourcing opportunities and not many competitors operating down there.”

This past April G4S pleaded guilty to failing to ensure Mr Ward’s health and safety and awaits sentencing; the maximum penalty is a Aus$400,000 fine. 

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.